After one of New Canaan’s many snowstorms last winter, next-door neighbors and fast friends Courtney Flynn and Jennifer Moore—teachers by training and profession—plowed a path between their homes, then scooped pots of snow and hauled them inside and up to Moore’s bathtub for their combined children (five altogether, each four years old or younger) to play with in a unique way.
The pair armed the kids with spray bottles of food coloring and “they just went nuts,” Moore recalled on a recent morning from a corner room downstairs at the United Methodist Church, a box of baby wipes surrounded by rubber bands, marbles and dowels on the table in front of her, graduated cylinders and beakers on a shelf against the wall.
“Coloring the snow and mixing the colors and seeing what happens when they mixed the colors or how they could get the color to go away or to melt the snow,” Moore continued. “They were playing, and that’s all about states of matter—solid, liquid, gas—the snow was melting and then the color was changing. So they [the kids] liked that, and then we just started doing little things outside.”
Those little things—hands-on and offering new ways to experience and understand the everyday—ranged from the basics (dropping rocks to test gravity) to more sophisticated (planting seeds, digging for worms).
Soon the women—each a certified teacher with a master’s degree and nine years’ teaching experience—began planning what would become Rad Lab, a new and massively popular, science-focused preschool program that launched in September.
Offered to 3- to 5-year-olds for one hour per week over 10 weeks, Rad Lab in its first session drew 24 kids total, broken into three separate classes, with Flynn and Moore teaching together.
Demand has nearly tripled already, and six additional classes are planned for a new 10-week session that starts Dec. 3.
Rad Lab is about far more than kids making a mess, though certainly the spirit of discovery embraced by Flynn and Moore can lend itself to that (and the small scientists get to wear lab coats and goggles). Tailored for the kids based on the Rad Lab co-founders’ own experiences as young moms and classroom instructors (more on their professional backgrounds below), each class follows the scientific method, starting with a question. The kids each share their own hypothesis (a word they learn early on), then investigate, read a book related to the query at hand, investigate some more and draw conclusions. (The concepts are in line with the state education department’s science framework for pre-K to second grade.)
“Inquiry is a big push in science and education, so you give students or kids stuff and they come up with their own questions and own ways to answer those questions,” Moore said. “And it has been found that students learn more when it is their own question and they’re leading the investigation, versus what you’d call ‘cookbook labs,’ where you would say, ‘Do step one, do step two, do this, do that.’ ”
New Canaan’s Lauren Erickson learned of Rad Lab through word of mouth when a friend forwarded her an email that Flynn and Moore sent out to people they knew when registration first opened. Thinking it was different and interesting relative to other options for preschoolers, Erickson enrolled her 3-year-old son, Anders, and the experience has been “incredible.”
“It’s very ‘smart’ is the word I want to use—they’re not only talking about and teaching concepts that are very academic and sophisticated, certainly for preschoolers, but also bringing it down to such a relatable level,” Erickson said. “My son thinks it’s such a fun thing. And when he comes home and talks about what he’s done, I’m blown away by his exposure to this level of learning.” (Anders already is signed up for the December-to-February session.)
As Rad Lab is the first business for both Flynn and Moore, the pair began climbing a steep hill since they started planning in earnest in May. Beyond the rigorous work of creating a new curriculum and making it a classroom reality, they found the space (“The church and the preschool have been wonderful,” Moore said), retained a lawyer, obtained insurance, set rates, launched a website (here they are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and then put out the word.
“It’s been challenging getting into a new business,” Flynn said. “We’ve been learning as we go.”
They’re quick studies.
“I love that two young mothers who have a passion for science brought this innovative idea to New Canaan,” Murphy said. “Just wish that they were around when my kids were little.”
More little kids will be able to avail themselves of Rad Lab soon, as plans are underway to offer an afterschool program in January for kindergarteners and first-graders at East and South Schools through the New Canaan Recreation Department. Flynn and Moore will hire new teachers to help run those classes, and a further expansion is possible.
Asked to speculate on why Rad Lab seems to have become so popular so quickly, the women said part of it may have to do with the unique offering in a field (science) that’s become an increasing focus in K-12 public school curriculum.
“The kids also like mixing things and getting messy and a lot of parents are happy with us doing that with them so that they don’t have to do it in their own kitchen,” Moore said with a smile.
She added that she loves the work, though it’s been tough in the early-going to be away from her own young children on the day that Rad Lab is operating. Moore, a New Canaan High School class of 1997 member who actually graduated from high school in Chicago when her parents moved there junior year, had been a full-time mom prior to Rad Lab.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Tufts and then started teaching in Boston Public Schools and her entire focus was urban education. Moore went to graduate school at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York and then, after a fellowship at a middle school in the Bronx, taught biology, chemistry and forensic science at Westhill High School in neighboring Stamford.
And Westhill is where Flynn graduated from in 1998. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Connecticut, then took a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Bridgeport and taught at Westover Elementary School in Stamford for nine years (first grade and kindergarten), before getting her master’s degree in special education, birth to grade two, from Manhattanville College. She continues to work with an agency as an early intervention teacher.
How the women came to know each other as neighbors is itself a good story.
Moore had been living on Weeburn Drive in New Canaan for about three years when, last fall, she and her family were outside on the swing set one day and noticed that a couple had come to see the house next door that was for sale.
Moore recalls that a man’s voice sounded from behind her: “The house looks great, but I heard the neighbors are awful.”
She looked up and recognized a boy—now a man—with whom she’d grown up in New Canaan and had been friends with in high school prior to losing touch in college: Will Flynn, Courtney’s husband.
With that background, living next door and having kids the same age (the Flynns have three kids, ages four, three and almost two; the Moores a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old), the women became friends.
And now with Rad Lab in full swing and growing, they spend plenty of time together—including physically carrying their gear into the space at Methodist Church, packing, unpacking and cleaning up daily. While giving high praise to the church and especially its Preschool Director Carol Hammond for her strong support, Flynn and Moore also say that in the long-term they’d like to find a dedicated lab space with sinks, storage and an outside area (for launching rockets or perhaps a Mentos-and-Coke experiment).
Flynn said that she’s been so busy, there hasn’t been time to take a step back and think about all they’ve accomplished in just a few months. Then recently, Flynn said, she was at a party explaining to people about the new business “and it’s the first time I’ve been able to process what we are doing and how amazing it is.”
“What’s most amazing is the kids, to hear stories about the kids taking this information home,” Flynn said. “Their minds are always working.”