As Camden and I drive and visit schools, we often find ourselves driving by mainstream public schools. They are easy to recognize, even before we see a sign. Rather consistently, these schools are large brick buildings with little to no windows. We are saddened to say that most look for like factories or even prisons. We hope that through our journey, we can share and inspire some contemplation about how school settings matter deeply. To be cut off from the natural world is to be cut off from a piece of our own being. I might even go as far as to say that a holistic education demands connection to the natural world. In light of this, we can be be relieved in knowing that schools such as this do exist and hold the natural world in high regard when it comes to their overall educational philosophy. The Garden School in Marietta, GA provides a nature-immersive program for toddlers to 4th graders. Their curriculum and pedagogy primarily follow the Waldorf principles, however, The Garden School takes a unique approach in combining the traditional Waldorf curriculum with an outdoor, nature-based emphasis.
We found the school, tucked away behind the Emerson Universalist Unitarian Congregation, which the school rents the property from. We were greeted warmly by Lesley Lang, the director of admissions, as well as, Sara Walsh, the director of operations. We had a brief conversation with Sara in which she described Waldorf education as an “ascending body of knowledge.”
As the students mature, they engage themselves at new levels of experience with each subject. It is as though, each year they come to a window on the ascending spiral that looks out into the world through the lens of a particular subject. –Henry Barnes
Sometimes I feel that our current journey is a lived experience of this spiral, as Camden and I continue to visit schools, we gain access to new windows through which we may gaze and gain deeper insights into education and being. It is a living, breathing story that continues to evolve and open as we engage with it. We were grateful to have the chance to visit The Garden School and spend time exploring the campus with Lesley. She explained that typically, they will spend a minimum of two and a half hours per day outside, and with Covid-19, they have been closer to 100% outdoors. As we walked through the space, you could barely believe that it was a school at all as they had imposed upon the earth in the least intrusive ways possible. There were paths especially designed for the toddlers (joyful beginnings), that were a bit shorter and easier to navigate with little ones. They also had spaces set aside for oral story telling, a key component of language and literacy development. The forest kindergarten has a playground hidden within it and when you look carefully, you can see the infinite ways to play, explore, and learn.
In discussing the ideal educators for The Garden School, Lesley said that it is not enough to be someone who loves being outdoors or hiking. The school is more suited to someone who enjoys camping in which you have to carry your gear, pack, and unpack routinely. This is due to the fact that teachers have to be willing to engage in a similar process as their classrooms are not set up for them. Every week, they need to carry out desks and prepare their spaces. They even have to take turns maintaining the composting toilets. To some, this may seem absurd and beyond the responsibilities of a teacher. However, it is a valuable part of being a part of the community and living together. As one teacher commented to us, there is always someone nearby who is willing to help, and often the students are willing to help as well. This engagement with the environment and weekly construction of the classroom is a valuable experience that, when taken up with meaning and spirit, provides many learning opportunities for both teachers and students. It seems that it is important to recognize and even celebrate the significant amount of grit that is required from teachers in such a school.
Another aspect of the campus that was exciting to see was the garden, complete with vegetables, chickens, goats, and donkeys. The third graders are responsible for taking care of that area and spend the most time there. They do everything from composting, pulling up weeds, taking care of the animals, and scooping up the poop. The reason that farming is so essential to the third graders is because it aligns with their development at that age. Lesley shared that, “Farming grounds them in a community and in who they are. At the 9-year change, they begin to realize that the world is not always as perfect as it seems to be and it is a time of awakening while still remaining grounded.” Camden and I enjoyed getting to feed kudzu, an invasive vine in the area, to the goats!
Another unique structure of the school was a floating platform that the children will use to observe and explore the wetlands. It looks like a large dock that detaches from the shore and floats out into the water. In addition to many of the teachers at the school being Waldorf trained, many have a background in ecology or environmental studies. Therefore, the children are guided by teachers who have a deep relationship and understanding of the earth. They participate in these outdoor activities with respect and consideration for the natural world. For example, although they have beavers on site, they try not to disturb that area, visiting that habitat very rarely.
Even though the children weren’t there, as they had not yet began the school year, the presence and energy of the teachers was easy to feel. They were active on the campus preparing for the beginning of the term and when we first arrived, we caught a glimpse of the teachers gathered outside in a circle, singing together. Due to the fact that the teachers stay with their students as they move up through each grade, they are required to learn a new curriculum each year. This creates a challenge in that you have to learn new content every year, but the benefit is that you already know the children quite well. Instead of having to spend time getting to know new children each year, you already know the majority of them, what skills they have, and where they need support the most.
We are so grateful to Lesley and The Garden School for welcoming us and taking time out to share about the school with us. It was a beautiful environment with dedicated educators who are sharing with children a holistic way of being in the world. We look forward to receiving a gesture from them to represent the essence of the school! The school has taken this request to heart and they plan to send me a gesture that is from all the teachers. I was touched by their unique and collaborative approach to this request. I hope you will check back here to see what community gesture they share!