CONCORD -- There's a relatively quiet flurry of activity in Joy Slater's classroom as boys and girls who have just turned 5 choose their activity.
They then get busy making big, drippy brush strokes at an easel, exploring math manipulatives, listening to a story, or playing a game of shape and color bingo.
Slater moves around the room asking the group of 15 early friends at Highlands Elementary School in Concord if they're making good choices, stopping to tie a boy's shoe, complimenting another on "doing the right thing," and reminding one fidgeting child to "make sure your shirt stays on your body."
She comforts a girl as she dictates a letter she wants to give to her mother and points out to a boy that his "nose desperately is in need of a tissue."
Highlands is one of six schools in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District to offer a new grade for students turning 5 between September and December of this year. The state-mandated transitional kindergarten program, with 2,000 classes in California, marks the first time a grade has been added since 1891.
Five-year-old Brayden is thriving in this setting, happily honing his fine motor and social skills with peers who also didn't make the chronological cut for traditional kindergarten this fall.
His mother, Laura Kelly says, "You can tell this is (Slater's) passion. Joy really gives these kids choices. It's given (Brayden) more confidence. It's an empowerment as they're discovering how to go from point A to point B."
Slater, a former preschool teacher, finds the classroom environment equally appealing as her students.
"I've always set my room up in a Montessori-esque kind of way," she says of the more unstructured environment she creates. "Without the pressure of testing and measuring, we can go deeper ... Discovery learning is how I teach."
An essential part of starting young students on a successful path is fostering their sense of wonder and piquing their curiosity, by offering up open-ended questions and more hands-on activity.
"We have time to have the conversation. They have the time to think about these concepts and get a concrete understanding," says Chrissy Bilyk, who teaches transitional kindergarten at Strandwood Elementary School in Pleasant Hill.
"You don't' have to worry that X, Y and Z didn't get done," adds Bilyk, a former preschool teacher at the Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, noting they're not being required to adhere to strict curricular standards faced in kindergarten.
"These giant steps we expect them to take based on their birthday are very contrived and doesn't necessarily indicate their (level of) development," says Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a former teacher who has been a successful proponent of the transitional kindergarten implementation, having played a key role in keeping the new TK class off the list of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget cuts.
She recently was honored with the 2012 Early Learning Champion Award, issued by the advocacy group Preschool California.
Bonilla cites the ever-accelerating academic demands being placed on kindergartners.
"These children get lost," she adds. "This gives them time to ripen and be ready."
And, notes Highlands Principal Vicki Eversole, the creative approach to teaching this young age group bodes well for their ongoing school career.
"This way, learning starts off being fun for them. It's a time to ask questions and expand things," says the one-time kindergarten teacher and reading specialist. "The children are enthusiastic and are wanting to come to school."