The second school we had the opportunity to visit in Santa Fe was La Casita Preschool. La Casita is a Reggio Emilia inspired school, as well as a parent co-operative. Of all the schools we have visited, La Casita has the longest history as it began 50 years ago when two mothers in a grocery store parking lot decided to bring the school to life. Camden and I met with Helen McDonald, the director and teacher at La Casita. Helen spoke with us for some time about the school’s philosophy and gave us a tour of the charming, homey space that they have crafted out for their young learners.
As we walked around the inside of the school, there were various types of documentation on the walls, such as conversations the children had had with teachers and each other. The visual display of what quotes, art work, photos, and other creations from the children is a key component of what helps the teachers shape the movement of learning throughout the year. They will follow the children interests and co-construct the path for further investigation and discovery. In addition, Helen explained that the teachers use google photos to collect images from the week and then discuss together what curiosities arose and how they can continue to support those curiosities as the next week unfolds. The direction of the content for learning is truly inspired from the children themselves. The most recent development has been the children’s interest in cars. Since the school playground overlooks the roadside, the children will direct themselves to climb up near the wall and gaze out to watch the cars passing by. They engage in enthusiastic discussions of the cars they see, compare them to the ones their families have, share their likes and dislikes, and listen to each other to see what insights their peers have about the speed of different vehicles.
Since it is just the start of the school year, the teachers aren’t fully sure where this initial interest in cars will lead. That is the beauty of how the process of learning unfolds at La Casita, it is realized by deep listening and keen awareness for the questions and emergent interests brought forth by the children. Helen brought our attention to the walls and open spaces in the various rooms. She commented on how there wasn’t much displayed at the moment and this is typical to how the school year begins. The rooms remain rather bare until they get filled by the work of the children. For example, she described how in the previous school year, the children were interested in shadows and puppets and by the end of the year they had created a whole set-up in one of the spaces to perform shadow puppet shows. It has been a reoccurring theme to see schools supporting their students in long-term projects, even from an early age. It helps to give children a sense of the longer story, where things come from, how they are created, and our role in giving them meaning. In addition, it gives children a greater sense of ownership and responsibility. They are intrinsically motivated to participate and learn when projects come from their own interests and continue to build and evolve as a result of their contributions.
A unique aspect of La Casita was that they were established as and continue to be a parent co-operative. Parents take an active role in the school and in their children’s development. Parents are involved in the classroom setting, as well as serving on the board, volunteering, and fundraising for the school. I’m sure we have all heard the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It can be easily misconstrued that school is the place of learning, that we outsource the responsibility of education to schools and teachers. In reality, learning is omnipresent, it is in a constant flow as we live and breath. In the parent co-operative model, La Casita supports parents and creates a village to raise their children in. Helen shared that the teachers and school setting offer a model for parents and they strive to help parents see their own children through a more holistic lens. Helen commented to us that it is about “revealing what is happening, articulating what is happening beneath the play.” When children climb up to see the cars driving by, we don’t need to stop at the observation of, oh, my child likes cars… we can uncover the depths of their being when we take time to listen and observe.
It was clear that La Casita valued parents, community, and relationships. Relationships between the children and teachers, children and other children, teachers and parents, and children and parents. They are an interconnected web that respects and values one another deeply. Again, there is a feeling that arises when we visit such schools as La Casita that is beyond what you gain from reading about them online. It felt like a warm and loving home in which the children were loved and heard. Therefore, the gesture that Helen shared with us was more than fitting. She placed her hands over her heart and her loving presence radiated boundlessly. We are so grateful for Helen’s time and willingness to share about La Casita with us, and we are inspired by the long history of holistic, heartfelt education that the La Casita community has provided for young children in Santa Fe!