Local preschools offer early grounding in environmental awareness
Keri Travis pointed out the furry protrusions on the neck of a white angora pygmy goat while feeding animals in her south Chico back yard, where Poppy Garden preschoolers play and learn.
“This one’s got the wattles—so we know it’s Unicorn,” said Travis, Poppy Garden Preschool’s director/teacher. “Should we put a horn on Unicorn for Halloween?” she joked, causing the children around her to break into giggles.
Travis incorporates her three goats—Unicorn, Lovebug and Charlotte—into her new preschool program, along with 27 chickens, two ducks and an expansive organic garden. Her working farm is just one aspect of this program that gives preschoolers a closer look at nature, and an early grounding in environmentalism.
“[Children] start out pure, and I feel that it’s our job to keep their environment as pure as possible,” said Travis. “I also feel that it’s our job to teach our children to be responsible citizens in this world. When we make good choices, they are definitely paying attention!”
From seasonal, organic snacks, often prepared by the children from food they pick from the garden; to bringing the eggs they collect from the coop home to their families; to the wooden dump-truck toys, beeswax crayons and wool-stuffed cotton dolls in the indoor play area, Poppy Garden preschoolers’ daily activities are flush with green.
Travis opened her small home-based preschool at the beginning of September, and she already has a waiting list. “Chico has responded very well, and it’s amazing that I am starting the school year full,” Travis said. Twenty-two children are enrolled in the school’s three programs: two preschool programs and one afternoon program for children in kindergarten through second grade.
Chico resident Holly Nielsen loves how Poppy Garden replicates the “rhythm of the home.” Nielsen’s 5-year-old daughter Adelle enjoys the program, which builds upon the traditional values Nielsen provides to her young children.
“It’s part of our lives—the whole farming thing, animal caretaking. It really connects you to the seasons. It connects you to why this town is here in the first place,” Nielsen said.
Preschools across Chico are incorporating nature, farming and environmental awareness into their programs. Charlotte Rainwater, director and teacher at Chico Montessori Children’s House, believes the gardening and recycling programs in her preschool help children incorporate environmentalism into their daily routine.
“They’re so young; they are learning everything about the world, and I think that it instills kind of a normality to it, as in, ‘This is what we do,’” said Rainwater, as two preschoolers picked tomatoes in the school garden. “So that as they grow older, it won’t be a second thought.”
In Chico’s Barber neighborhood, Mi Escuelita Maya—a preschool popular for its focus on language acquisition, performance arts and multiculturalism—also gives a heavy nod to its environmental program, which includes all buildings painted with nontoxic house paint, organic snacks, recycling and composting, and a large garden co-managed by the local GRUB cooperative’s education program.
Maria Trenda, the school’s founder and director, embraces “green living” not just as a value but also because “there’s so much educational potential, through spending time planting, harvesting, cooking out of what you grow. This gives you a close understanding of how things work.”
Dragonfly Playschool director and teacher Robin Williams echoed many of the same sentiments. Williams said of her own family, “We’re living as sustainably as possible and bringing things to the basics.” Consequently, her preschool program, which she conducts in her home in north-central Chico, mirrors the way her family lives. Dragonfly Playschool follows what Williams calls “the whole philosophy of being organic, from what we play with, to what we grow, to what we drink out of.”
Back at Poppy Garden, the environmental focus also extends into ensuring the play area is free of toxins and pollutants. It is an “eco-healthy” preschool, as defined by the Eco-Healthy Child Care (EHCC) program, a project of the nonprofit Children’s Environmental Health Network, in conjunction with a host of partner organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. EHCC provides an extensive checklist to which preschools and day-care centers must conform to gain endorsement. Although Poppy Garden is not yet listed on the EHCC website, Travis has applied for endorsement, and maintains that she follows its guidelines strictly.
“Research increasingly shows that the first years of a child’s life are critical to shaping their future health and development,” states the EHCC website (www.ecohealthychildcare.org), which aims to ensure day cares and preschools are “as happy, healthy, safe and green as possible by reducing children’s exposure to toxics.”
The EHCC checklist outlines “criteria that look at everything from cleaning supplies and pesticides to air quality,” said Travis. A preschool or child-care facility must conform to at least 24 of the 30 listed criteria, including several required steps, such as banning cigarette smoking on the premises of the school or in sight of children, to attain endorsement.
Poppy Garden’s commitment to green living is also strongly influenced by its teaching philosophy, the Waldorf method.
“In Waldorf classrooms, we use as many natural toys and supplies as possible,” Travis said. “Because we feel that the child is always learning from and absorbing their environment, we should make it as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as possible. … I also feel that natural materials ‘respond’ differently. Wool-stuffed dolls, for example, hold warmth and can give some warmth back.
“We are completely green, but it’s not like I set out to say ‘I’m going to be green,’” Travis explained. Her thought was interrupted as her 6-year-old son, Tenzin, handed her a small flower. She stroked his hair and thanked him, and he ran off to play. Travis’ daughter Myla, age 3, attends her preschool, and Tenzin joins in the K-2 program she runs in the afternoon.
“Poppy Garden is just my idea of the perfect school, and the school that I would want my own children to attend—and they do attend!” offered Travis. “Basically, I am doing everything for the children in my preschool that I would do for my own children. I think it’s fair to assume that parents want the best of everything for their children. I know I do!”