From Mini-Farm Preschool to Traditional Kindergarten

A version of this story originally appeared in my Green and Simple column on the Old Town Alexandria Patch.

Last week the youngest in our clan graduated from preschool, and I find myself feeling conflicted about the transition ahead.

Our son has been at this school for his entire preschool life and has been pretty content for the majority of it. There were the early days, when he was still quite clingy — I would feel the torturous tug during drop-off, his screams echoing through the classroom as I headed for the door. Overtime, this was balanced and eventually replaced with his resistance to leaving school at pick-up time. He has come to enjoy his independent life and the rich relationships he has developed with adults who are not his parents.

Now this phase of his childhood and this stage of our parenting is coming to an end, and I am not quite ready for it.

The transition into kindergarten will be a smooth one. It will be much easier for him than it was for his oldest sister, who is always the first to experience so many new adventures and has done a rockstar job of breaking in mom and dad for her younger siblings.

Our son has been riding along on school drop-off and pick-up trips, so he knows the gym teacher who greets students at the curb in the morning and the leaders of programs after-school. He has been a server for the American Girl tea parties for each of his sisters, so he knows many of the teachers, parents, and students. He has accompanied me to environmental club meetings in the library and to family events in the multipurpose room and cafeteria, so he knows the physical structure. And he has spent many, many hours getting grass stains on his clothes from the school playground, so he is at home there as well.

I feel less emotional about where he is going — I know that he will be fine in kindergarten, and we are really happy with our elementary school. It is more about what he is leaving behind. It is not just about leaving the preschool scene and all of the emotions connected to that milestone. It is about the particular pre-school that he is leaving.

The school that our son attends is not your average preschool. Frog Pond is housed on two acres of land, with an outdoor classroom, vegetable gardens, a butterfly garden, an amphitheater, and a meadow. It is home to chickens, goats, ducks, and many other creatures that inhabit the blackberry patch and native habitats. It is adjacent to Huntley Meadows Park, where the children go for hikes on a regular basis as part of the curriculum.

It is because of my children’s experiences at Frog Pond, where they came to really understand and connect with nature, that I was inspired to become a naturalist. In fact, I was so smitten with the school and its teachings, that when I was recruited to manage the center several years back, I accepted the position. While I am no longer an employee, I am still deeply connected to the school and continue to contribute to its efforts.

When our girls were young, they used to attend a traditional childcare center in Old Town, just a few blocks from our house — literally walking distance. When I shared our decision to move from that center with a group of fellow moms over coffee, I asked for recommendations. One mom, in describing the school her children attended, shared that her kids often greeted her covered in mud at pick-up. While this might be a turn-off to many, it excited me. One of my many mottos has been “a ring around the tub after a bath is a sign of a really good day.” Despite that Frog Pond was several miles out of the way, I immediately began firing off questions and set the wheels in motion to make the move.

While my connection with nature was not as deep then as it is now, it was important to me and my husband that this natural connection be at the root of our kids’ early educational experiences. My husband grew up in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, surrounded by farmland and Amish culture. I grew up on the southeast coast of Massachusetts, surrounded by cranberry bogs, forests, and ponds, with the ocean waters just a few miles away.

Living in the heart of Old Town, we have strayed from these roots in many ways. So, we wanted a school that could give them as sense of our childhood experiences and what we could not give them in our cozy duplex and postage-stamp-sized backyard: acres of land on which to roam, real live animals with whom to frolic, logs to overturn and explore, a frog pond to observe, and so much more.

Like our daughters, he will go from spending hours of his school day outside in all kinds of weather where he is engaged and intimately connected with the natural world, to sitting at a desk in a classroom looking at nature through a window and eagerly anticipating a short outdoor interlude at recess. He will go from watching muskrats play, heron fish, and turtles sunbathe at Huntley Meadows, to learning about animals from books, discussions, and perhaps a field trip or two. He will go from picnicking outside whenever weather permits to eating with dozens of other kids in the cafeteria where bird songs simply cannot be heard. Sure, he will grow in so many ways and learn lots of new things that he would not in preschool. And he will make new friends, learn new social skills, and deepen his world experience. In fact, he is looking forward to it and is eager to move on.

But, I will miss being greeted by the sound of ducks, the sight of goats in the field, and the whirl of  turkey vultures in the sky. I will miss the squeals of kids as they roll tires down toad mountain and count frogs in the pond. I will miss the teachers and staff that make Frog Pond such a magical learning place. I don’t know what this part of the transition will be like for our son. I don’t know if he will be able to appreciate or articulate the differences between his preschool and his elementary school. But I do know that he has deep green roots that will help to keep him connected to and grounded in the natural world as he grows. He is already a naturalist in his own right!

Saying so long to Frog Pond does not have to mean so long to all things green. With all three kids in one school for the first time this coming school year, (if only for one year!) I look forward to doing more work with the environmental club and with the garden and grounds committee at our elementary school. I am excited to participate more deeply in the work being done to bring more of nature into classrooms and give students more opportunities to get out of the classroom and into nature.

On to the next chapter!


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