The students aren’t here yet, so Sofia Christakis climbs the ladder and swooshes down the bright blue slide.
Once she lands, smiling, she heads to the swing, where she sways serenely back and forth, a metronome in motion.
Hey, these things have to be tested out to make sure they are safe for the little ones, don’t they?
Play, you see, is much more than a game to Sofia, the founder of Puzzles, a learning center whose mission is to spread inclusion and neurodiversity among children and families.
“Each child’s brain is an amazing puzzle that we have the opportunity to welcome,” she says as she heads to the front desk. “At Puzzles, all voices, brains and children are welcome. All children are complete; there is nothing missing from any of them. It’s not our job to put pieces together because they already are whole.”
Sofia, a tall woman with a serious pair of horn-rims who keeps her long, dark curls in a rebellious top knot, has devoted her life to teaching.
In the process, she learned a lot about education.
Born in Astoria, she grew up in Lynbrook, a Nassau County village on Long Island’s South Shore, but spent a lot of time in Astoria visiting her Greek-immigrant grandparents and her uncles.
Sofia is the first to admit that she wasn’t a model student.
“Things didn’t come easy for me,” she says.
Nevertheless, by the time she was in college, she set her sights on the classroom, earning a bachelor’s degree in special education and general education then a master’s in school-building leadership from St. John’s University.
She also has an extended certificate in applied behavioral analysis from Hunter College.
Her premier students were first- and second-graders in Astoria’s St. Catherine and George Elementary School on 33rd Street.
Two years later, she was teaching special education at The Riverview School Q277 in Long Island City.
And there she might very well still be – “I loved my job, and I loved my students” – had she not given birth to the twins, Dimitrios and Venetia.
(Her husband, Pete Christakis, is a personal-injury and worker’s compensation lawyer who works far too many hours in Manhattan.)
Sofia wanted to go back to work, she really did, but she also wanted to be with the twins full time.
She kept postponing her return to the classroom, hoping that she’d come up with a solution that would allow her to give 100 percent to work and 100 percent to family.
Sofia conceived Puzzles around the time her parents, Jordan and Venetia Kokkorio, sold their eponymous insurance company to a larger firm and were vacating their office on 23rd Avenue.
It would be the perfect spot, she thought, for Puzzles’ debut.
She planned to open her doors in March 2020, but the pandemic had other ideas, and she had to wait (and continue to pay rent) until July 2021.
Sofia started with six students, and by March 2022, Puzzles had proved so popular that she needed to find a bigger space.
In July 2022, she moved to Ditmars Boulevard next to Immaculate Conception Church.
The classes, taught by a teacher or therapist with paraprofessional support, have cute titles like Little Cruisers and Tummy Time.
They enroll 10 to 15 students, from 6 weeks to 10 years old, who are grouped by age, not ability.
“Everything is play-based and hands-on, with students leading the way,” Sofia says. “What makes us different is that we welcome everybody – the physically handicapped, the cognitive-delayed and the gifted and talented. Inclusive spaces in education are limited or non-existent. It’s important to expose kids to people of all abilities.”
The classes range from art to science, and there are special night events that feature films and pizza.
Some of the students hold their birthday parties at Puzzles.
Sofia, who is 33, puts a lot of time in at Puzzles, but it works for her because Dimitrios and Venetia, who are 3, take classes there.
“I love what I do, so it doesn’t feel like work, but it is more fulfilling than my work in the DOE,” she says. “I loved the kids there but not the bureaucracy and the separation of the children by brain.”
Although Puzzles hasn’t turned a profit yet, “we’re getting close,” Sofia says, adding that the staff now numbers 11 and some 100 students have come to play to learn since September.
One day soon, she hopes to open Puzzles franchises.
“My goal is to grow Puzzles and for it to be a place where people feel welcome and respected,” she says. “I want to spread neurodiversity in the community. The need is there, and I don’t want to wait any more as I did all those years in public schools.”
She checks the clock. She might have time to go down the slide one more time.
Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling