Monday, June 14, 2021

Breathing Among the Trees - The Preschool Adventure Among the Trees that Grew Us (The Day the World Paused 463)

**When The Impossible Girl came to Magnolia. She wouldn't talk to anyone. 3 or 4 weeks in, she finally talked to a teacher. Her words? "No, I don't want to eat lunch." Her voice was celebrated. This video is about a year later - singing her own song on a stage the kids made**

To say I've ever pursued a 'conventional' life would be a lie. The idea of 2.5 kids, a dog and a white picket fence has never been a dream of mine. But as a parent, many of those ideas shift. It's easy to want the safest, most comfortable environment for your kids. Our job, first and foremost as parents is to keep them alive through those first few years when all they need is everything you are all the time.

Now, I may write another whole blog about the challenges of motherhood as a self-employed 41-year old military spouse, but that's not this blog. 
This one is about the other side of that. This one is about our adventure in Forest Preschool and the people there taught us to breathe among the trees.

The Impossible Girl the morning of her first day of Preschool at Magnolia Forest School
Age 2.5

  When looking for preschools, my options were limited. It was basically the Co-Op preschool (which require volunteer hours which would have gone further into killing my career) or keep doing what we were doing and hoping for the best.

What were we doing? 

Child Care at the YMCA offered 15 hours a week in 3 hour a day increments. During a typical day, My Sailor would work in the mornings while I saw a few clients and used the Child Watch time, and then we'd high five as he walked in the door in the afternoon, have 2 hours of 'family time' before he'd be on parent duty and I went to work for the evening.  Tag team parenting worked for a while, but we needed more - not just more child care time but The Impossible Girl needed more too. She needed to be able to establish relationships beyond drop-in child care. We needed support as a family. 

We found it in an unexpected place. 

 While searching for affordable preschool options, I stumbled across Magnolia Forest Preschool. They offered a summer camp program for 3-4 days a week, 4 hours a day in the mornings. It was affordable so we tried it out for a week. 

That week long relationship turned into 3 years. 

At the first day of drop off

Now, when I started telling people about Forest Preschool they largely didn't get the concept.  Most of my friends were enrolling their kids in Spanish or French Immersive Preschools, or some academically advanced version.

 When they found out The Impossible Girl wasn't focusing on learning to sing her ABCs, they were stunned

Kids out playing in the woods all day? Even in the rain and the snow? Don't they get cold and sick? Don't they get dirty? Won't they wander off and get lost? Won't they fall from trees and get hurt? Won't they poke someone's eye out with a stick? 

I could go into my long winded answers to those, but I'll just drop their FAQ here and just go into detail on a couple of my favorite questions.

 My short answers to the ones above are: Yes. Yes. Not really. Yes. No. Maybe, but it's not common. No. 

Family and friends were stunned to learn that The Impossible Girl wasn't learning to recite the alphabet or learn a second language or some other academic feat. She was just 'playing'? How would she learn? What do you mean she isn't enrolled in other extra curriculars outside of school?! 

Well, the verdict is in. Here we are about to enter Kindergarten and she can sing her ABCs just fine. She's learning to write because she learned through drawing with a stick in the dirt that what she draws has meaning. (Okay, she also scribbled away happily in a composition book at school.) 'Just playing in the woods' has helped her develop traits I think she would have lost out on had we done this early childhood learning any other way. If she needs to 'catch up' academically, I have every confidence she can. She is coming out of preschool with a great set of skills.

Forest Preschool seemed so 'out of the box' and unusual, but let's think about it. Why is that? Why is it odd to think of kids 'wasting their time' playing in nature?

When did we forget that being out in nature and moving is more normal and natural to our bodies (including our brains) than being stuck in a chair behind a desk? 

When did we decide that book learning was the only kind that makes a person a valued member of the planet? Some of the greatest geniuses of all time often found their fame through creative thinking. Both are valuable. 

 I field questions like, "How will she learn to stand in a line or sit still?" These are things life teaches us. She doesn't need a special lesson on it. She experiences it at the grocery store, or in the car while we're driving from place to place. She sits still when she's hungry and wants to eat or someone is telling a story of interest, or her legs are tired, or she wants to scoot her way up a tree, etc. 

Another favorite one I heard a lot over our years was, "Does she bounce off the walls at home because she doesn't understand boundaries?" Um.. nope. Not at all. She has found ways to manage her energy and an understanding of her emotions that rivals some adults, thanks to her time in the woods.

Yup, she gets dirty and occasionally gets a scrape or a bruise. It turns out kids are pretty good at risk assessment when they get to make up the game and aren't forced to do things a certain way. When they can explore and find their own way, they grow. I read something in The Last Lecture that has stuck with me. It's something I follow as I help adults build self-esteem and confidence: 

"He knew there was really only one way to teach kids how to develop [self-esteem]: You give them something they can’t do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process."

It works the same way with adults when I'm teaching them to do something new. She knows when to ask for help, and these wonderful adults in her life have helped her grow by leaps and bounds. She is confident with what she can do in her body. 

 The kids learn quickly that boundaries aren't there 'because an adult said so'. They are there for safety. The kids haven't gone all Mogli or Lord of the Flies.

But I don't want to talk about the kids. They kids are amazing, don't get me wrong. The Impossible Girl has made some awesome friends. The adults that make these kids lives amazing are the real rock stars. 

Serious rock stars.

When this pandemic slammed things shut - these adults showed up for these kids in big, personal ways. From one of the founders going full digital with online 1/2 hour lessons (which helped organize our day in BIG ways) to PHYSICALLY SHOWING UP when I messaged them 'hey, we are in your area kinda - want to go outside and meet us?' We got to spend some one on one time with four of her teachers. Each one came without a single qualm. The school was open by donations only. THEY COULD HAVE SAID NO. They could have been too busy. Instead, they OFFERED to meet us or do video chats with the kids if they needed it. And let me tell you, pandemic+depolyment+Just us= WE NEEDED IT!

A socially distanced play date with a favorite teacher on the spur of the moment.

Virtual Preschool - art classes, yoga, and this one "find your quiet place"

Another socially distance beach meet up with one of the Founders of the school

If you know me in person, I treat the advice of professionals I respect like a cattle prod. More experienced people know more than me and I want to learn from them.

 One of the things her teachers have taught me early on was "Be a Sports Caster, not a Referee" (Here's how it works for me.). Through their actions and the way they treat the kids, they reinforced what it means to actually 'hold space' for someone. I've learned how to let my daughter come to me and discovered this mutual ground of respect. One of the gifts I've found of being adopted is that my parents got to know me as a person, without expecting a 'mini me' from me. It's a gift I want to share, and this team of professionals have reinforced. Getting to know these humans who have chosen to be teachers has not only changed the Impossible Girl's life for the better, but mine as well. 

They have held The Impossible Girl when her words get tangled and she can't get out what she's trying to say and she cries and in frustration. They have held space for her when My Sailor is away and all the complicated emotions that come with it. They have been the people she needs - and the people we need in our lives.  

We still have weeks of summer camp before we leave our space in Magnolia for another family. We've watched the school grow from a tiny group of kids in a group camp site, to a fully fleshed-out outdoor home for a diverse group of kids. Now? They have several campuses and a waiting list.

The talents of these special people will change and shape families for years to come. 

And I for one am glad we took the chance on this unconventional route. 

Any future kids will be sure to learn to breath among the trees as we have.

Final School Picture - Fall of 2021

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