August 2011

A Head Start in Life Bluffton’s Kids College delivers quality learning with a loving touch

Author: Peter Zink | Photographer: Photography by Anne

Shanel Riddle will never forget that day. She sat in her car quietly, a million thoughts running through her head. And then she cried. Finding herself with few options, she dropped off her six-week-old daughter Gabrielle at a daycare with which she wasn’t entirely comfortable. A few weeks later, her fears were confirmed, and she pulled Gabrielle out of daycare. That memory remained with her as she opened Kids College in Bluffton three years ago. “I always tell parents that’s the reason I started this school,” Riddle said. “It’s hard enough to leave your child for the first time, but I think it makes a huge difference when you leave your children at a place where you know they’re being taken care of.”

Education isn’t entirely foreign to Riddle. Born and reared near Johannesburg, South Africa, both of her parents are teachers. Her mother Ronel Burger managed 11 schools in South Africa, and Riddle turned to her for help in opening and starting Kids College. With a first class of just 15 children, the school exploded in growth and now stands at over 100 students. Burger credits the caring environment her daughter created for the school’s success. “A lot of places just feed the kids, keep them clean and send them home. I think one thing she’s achieved here is that it’s a family environment with lots of love. You might get children in the first few days who are crying as they get used to the environment. But they settle in quickly, and I think it is literally because of the love and the care that they get.”

The goal of love and care starts with the hiring process. Every teacher hired has the necessary credentials, including, at minimum, an early childhood diploma, FBI background check and fingerprints. But Riddle looks for something more—that extra spark of passion and humor that’s going to light up a child’s face.
“Laughter is very important. You don’t put a sourpuss in front of children,” Burger said.

With a solid staff supporting the children, Riddle incorporated a lot of the unique and effective ideas she saw in South Africa. Starting with the infants, every baby has his or her own exclusive crib, receiving daily massages to relax and exercise muscles. At the end of each day, parents receive an hourly printout showing their baby’s daily activity. “It’s a nice way to let parents know how their baby’s doing before they start talking,” Riddle said.

Starting at age one, Kids College offers a separate curriculum and classroom for each age group, where the whole child development approach is taken. Even when it looks like they’re idly playing, children are constantly learning.

“Everything has a cognitive exercise involved with it. There’s a reason behind everything,” Riddle explained. “Where a casual observer might think children are just playing with blocks, there’s always another element. Don’t be surprised to see them build letters of the alphabet with them or classify them by different colors.”
Even the messy games have a point. Riddle describes the value of sensopathic play. “We’ll have them play in the sand one day, or have them place spaghetti in Jell-O.” Besides the chance to engage their senses at an early age, Riddle hopes these activities help kids walk away with a sense that learning is fun, which they carry over into kindergarten and later grades.

And don’t let the spaghetti and Jell-O fool you; beneath the messy veneer lies a highly structured day. The fundamentals of preschool are all there: circle time with the teacher is the same time every day; every child knows when to expect a snack or two; and nap time is either loved or loathed by every child after lunch.
“We give them a lot of structure because that routine builds security in children. But then we give them a lot of free choice within that structure as well,” Riddle said.

If the kids are really paying attention, they’ll even notice their months have structure. Each month features a different theme. For example, the May theme was summer, so children built sandcastles, splashed water, played with bubbles, and enjoyed a watermelon party—all with a decent serving of learning thrown in the mix.

Riddle considers her work far from finished. She’s just getting started toward where she wants to take the school in the future. Recently Kids College became one of the few schools in the area to gain a contract with the USDA’s Child and Adult Food Care Program. Taking over six months to acquire, the program brings a slew of strict dietary guidelines. Every child is offered at least three fresh fruits and vegetables a week, and vitamin levels are carefully monitored with each serving. Surprisingly, picky eaters seem to be on board. “I don’t know if it’s the group pressure or the fact that it looks good to them, but most of them eat it,” Riddle remarked.

Kids College also recently received accreditation from Advocates for Better Care, a branch of the South Carolina Department of Health & Human Services. “Basically they hold child care centers to a higher level of accountability regarding the child to teacher ratios, our interaction with the children and what materials we use to teach,” said Riddle.

From a full-fledged summer camp that offers two field trips a week, or the occasional “Parent’s Night” Friday night daycare service, to the intimate way everyone knows each other on a first name basis, it’s easy to see how small touches add up to a school that sets children up for success.
According to Burger, a child’s confidence is 90 percent of what a preschool is all about. “If you can have a little one walk out of here thinking he [or she] is King Kong, you’ve made it. In that kindergarten, you want them to walk in there and think they’re great. And that sets the tone for the rest of their school career.”
Judging by the big smiles and enthusiastic waves of “Goodbye, Ms. Shanel!” from the children, confidence is something Kids College delivers on a daily basis.

To give your children a head start in life, enroll them at Kids College by calling (843) 757- 9150 or visiting

“Laughter is very important. You don’t put a sourpuss in front of children.”—Ronel Burger

“I don’t know if it’s the group pressure or the fact that it looks good to them, but most of them eat it”–Shanel Riddle on picky eaters

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