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Creating the ultimate after-school kids’ club

Anne Leonardi is the ultimate advocate for early childhood education and high quality before- and after-school programs.

Just after the school bell rings, Champions is the place to be at Dugan Elementary in Marlboro, NJ. There, in the cafeteria (which has been transformed into the ultimate learning lab/hangout space/fun zone), one might see kids building bridges, modeling volcanoes, or whooping it up during a spirited game of “Math Bowl.”

“I believe experiential learning is critical,” said Champions Site Director – and 2015 Knowledge Universe Early Childhood Educator Award winner – Anne Leonardi. “That’s how children at this age learn to observe, experiment, build, work in teams, and develop critical thinking skills.”

Leonardi is completely tuned into the 65 or so kids who attend her Champions after-school program each week. She’s happy to play Katy Perry songs on the boom box or help them write and choreograph performances. When some of her children expressed an interest in writing, she formed a Creative Writing and Journal Club. (She figured she’s have 10 kids join; the club has more than 30 members.) Last year, her kids formed a debate club, and Leonardi helped them develop pro and con talking points about things kids care about: Should schools sell junk food in the cafeteria? Should kids be allowed to bring smartphones to class?

Leonardi once worked in New York City public schools as a fifth-grade teacher – but the after-school educational space turned out to be a perfect match for her charisma, creativity, and love for elementary-aged students.

“I’ve always wanted to create this magical place where children can be safe, be together, have fun, and learn in new ways,” she said.

She’s certainly done that.

“Actually, I think I created a love bubble,” she said.

Earlier this fall Leonardi earned the Knowledge Universe Early Childhood Educator Award. Learn more about what makes her such an incredible educator in the video below.