TRAVERSE CITY — Two little girls picked up a carton of fake eggs and pretended to crack the shells into a container.
They had made a beeline for the play kitchen, with its mock stove and counter tops all scaled down to the perfect size for small hands. In another area of the colorful classroom, children built with blocks and made engine revving noises as they pushed toy cars.
For four decades, the Traverse City Cooperative Preschool has promoted play and learning. The preschool celebrates those 40 years with a gathering of alumni, parents and students at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 8, at the South Elmwood Avenue school, located on the former state hospital grounds.
Current parents praised the school for its "play-based," hands-on approach and the dedicated parents who make up the co-op membership.
"From what research shows now, play and parental involvement are important," said Tammy LaFaive, a board member and the school's enrichment coordinator.
The school collects tuition and accepts children ages 3 to 5 on a lottery system. The 12-member board is made up of current parents, and the school's enrollment is about 80 students.
"What I like about the co-op (is) how much I've learned," said board president Stephie Luyt.
Luyt credited longtime teacher Nancy Render for the knowledge she shares with parents and the connection she makes with children. Last week, Render began an afternoon class by welcoming the students to their second day of the school year. The youngsters sat in a circle as Render talked about the change of seasons from summer to fall.
"Change is good for your ... ," Render prompted the class.
"Brain" exclaimed a few children in a united response.
After some songs, discussion and show-and-tell time — in which one child displayed an ice-skating medal and another a helicopter — the students took off for play areas.
Evelyn Petersen was among the founders of the preschool, which opened in January 1970 at the Asbury Methodist Church. It later moved to a school house located at the present-day Grand Traverse Mall site. Back then, the school was surrounded by corn fields and a buffalo herd. A subsequent move took the school to 14th Street before finding its current home on Elmwood.
Petersen recalled the enthusiasm of the founding parents. They shared their children's toys for co-op use. They made blocks out of milk cartons. Members wrote the bylaws and built a "good foundation" that allowed the school to flourish, Petersen said. The group was compelled to form because there weren't many preschool options in town at the time, and because the parents all wanted "more than what was being offered," she said.
"I have forever friends that started the co-op with me," said Petersen, who taught at the school until 1977.
Those bonds are part of the school's tradition.
When father Cary Paul moved here and started meeting the neighbors, he discovered an "absolute buzz about the school." He's helping to organize the 40-year anniversary celebration and has been reaching out to parents of former students to invite them to the event.
"People have such an emotional attachment here," Paul said. "There's a lot of energy about it."