A place full of new surroundings and all new faces may be intimidating to a young boy or girl just starting school for the first time.

To help make a smooth transition, the Army has developed an initiative for kids to conquer those early anxieties. Called "Strong Beginnings," it's a pre-kindergarten program designed to prepare children for the next level of education.

Susan Fitzgerald, an administrator for Fort Belvoir's Child, Youth and School Services, said the curriculum focuses on children's social, emotional and physical development.

In addition to learning basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, Fitzgerald believes it's equally important to get children acquainted to working with others their own age.

"They start out in small work groups before moving into larger groups. We find that to be most successful at their age," Fitzgerald said. "We usually have one teacher for every 10 students. It keeps things simpler and allows kids to get a solid footing on what they'll be learning as a group. What we want most is for them to feel comfortable participating."

With a heavy emphasis on following a routine, Sherry Bryant, director of the installation's Child Development Center on South Post, said pre-schoolers also go through various exercises in order to get used to functioning in larger settings. One example was a recent project on building bird feeders.

"Children at this age want things to be concrete. So we incorporate a lot of hands-on projects that will not only spark their interest, but get them to learn and understand the fundamentals," Bryant said. "When making their bird feeders, kids worked with their teachers and learned all about the habits of birds, what they eat and many other interesting things. It's also nice to have something to show Mom and Dad."

Field trips aren't out of the question, either. Lauren Enzweiler, director of the CDC on North Post, said students at her school recently went to a showing of Sesame Street in Washington, D.C. Guest speakers from the Baltimore Aquarium have also stopped by and been accompanied by many exotic fishes and turtles.

"Things like that are always a lot of fun for kids. It's an introduction to something new and different and makes for a great experience," Enzweiler said. "We have 110 kids between the two centers. What they're learning in the classroom is great. To bring them something in person - that's even better. It's even more exciting."

The pre-k program operates three hours a day, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. at both centers on post. Before and after-school care is also available. Fitzgerald said children must be four-years-old before Sept. 30 for placement in the program.
For more information, call 703-805-9148.