by Kelly Hogan, co-founder of Mother Earth School
Mother Earth School started as an all-outdoor kindergarten class of Shining Star Waldorf School in fall 2007 held at Tryon Life Community Farm, an urban permaculture farm and sustainability education center in Portland, OR. In 2008, the Faery Garden Preschool was added and in 2009, both classes became Mother Earth School - a project of Tryon Life Community Farm and an evolving educational paradigm combining aspects of Waldorf education with permaculture practices and traditional living skills. The farm is surrounded by a 700 acre second growth forest (Tryon Creek State Park) and so the school has been a fusion of the European model of 'forest kindergarten' as well as homestead schooling.
Our total school year enrollment has not yet exceeded 25. We keep our class sizes small enough to focus on specialized activities as well as to play freely in the forest while remaining visible to the class teachers. Each year our summer camps serve over 50 children ages 4-12, including rite of passage programs for pre-teenagers. Beginning this fall, we will be offering a 1st/2nd grade class at an urban farm in SE Portland. Jean's Farm is also surrounded by woodland and will house our new yurt classroom where an artistic, academic morning lesson inspires the outdoor immersion portion of the day.
The children at Mother Earth School are joyfully rising to the occasion of learning basic life skills that are currently undervalued by modern society. Their will-forces are activated in a way that our industrialized culture no longer encourages. Modern conveniences are designed to meet our needs for us, resulting in generations of people that are lacking the direct experience of a main component of what it means to be human. Capability, confidence and ingenuity all require an inner striving which is naturally enhanced through the healthy challenges presented through outdoor education.
Mother Earth School also offers adult education in the form of parent enrichment and teacher training courses. Our model can then be applied to both home life and classrooms.
The long-term vision of Mother Earth School is multi-faceted. We collaborate with other land-based projects all over the city of Portland with the goal of having early childhood programs in multiple locations. Our vision also includes serving more children with special needs, hosting broad community conversations about privilege, welcoming the public to seasonal celebrations, and acquiring land to build our cob school house, outdoor kitchen, water & compost systems and biodynamic farm with our school community.
Farm-based pedagogy is inherently rhythmical. Daily, weekly and yearly rhythms guide our curriculum. The beauty of outdoor immersion education is that 'nature as a teacher' offers lessons in a non-linear and asymmetrical format which has huge, positive implications for physical and emotional brain development.
The examples of our pedagogy that I love best from teaching on the farm have to do with life, death and relationships. The children are mesmerized by the worms that they find in the ground when they are gardening. Then, when they are taking care of the chickens, they witness those same creatures being eaten. Instead of feeling sadness that the worms were eaten, there is a deep awareness of the context of life and death that develops. This awareness is not intellectual, logical or linear. Instead it is cyclical. When we bring our food compost to the chickens, clean out the hen house and then put the chicken droppings into a compost pile that eventually fertilizes the garden, a cycle has completed. Intellectually, this is a concept (the worms that were eaten by the chickens ended up back in the garden again). Energetically, this awareness translates into a different type of understanding than learning concepts. Another way to describe it is to invite an exploration of the difference between the terms 'knowledge' and 'knowing'. Our early childhood pedagogy is based upon the energetic component - the 'knowing'. This is achieved by illuminating the powerful impact that we have when we care for our environment and modeling humility for the profoundly perfect design of natural systems.
As the children enter the grades, our program is designed to support their capacity to express, integrate and apply this awareness to life skills and knowledge as each subject is presented holistically with relevance to each other subject, the students themselves, and their surroundings (both natural and cultural).
The Mother Earth School curriculum is both movement and relationship based. Our class teachers have Waldorf teaching certificates. Our curriculum is solutions-oriented and based on compassion, respect, and meeting children individually in developmentally appropriate ways. Therefore, there is not a "curriculum" per se because it is always freshly revealed to the teachers based on observing the needs of their class.
This 'living curriculum' overlays the cycles of the year and the work of the farm. Children participate in the life of the farm. Each fall, food is harvested and prepared for snack in the outdoor kitchen. Cooking is done over fire using rocket stoves and cob ovens. The children may haul wood, tend the fire, chop vegetables, knead bread, set the table, gather herbs for tea, say a blessing, eat together clean their dishes and take the food scraps to the chickens. When the pumpkins are ripe, they will spend a day preparing pumpkin pie to share with the parents. Other food-related projects include food preservation (fermentation and canning), jam making, cheese & ice cream making (after milking the goats, of course!).
When the sheep are sheared in autumn, the children wash, card and plant-dye the wool with roots and flowers from the garden. Then they work on a felting project or spin the wool into yarn using homemade drop spindles. The children might then either work on knitting projects with the freshly spun wool and home made knitting needles (developmentally appropriate for first graders) or weaving projects for younger children using looms they made themselves.
And so the year progresses. The gardens are winterized, the barn is weather-proofed, debris shelters are built in the forest, the nettle stalks are harvested and twisted into cordage, charcoal and pine pitch are heated and combined to make glue, candles are dipped when the hives are opened up in the spring, seeds are planted, invasive ivy is pulled from trees and woven into baskets, berries are picked in the forest, etc...
Each day, the children also hear stories, engage in games, create nature crafts, play freely in the woods, and gather together in circle to synchronize their movements with each other and in rhythm with songs and verses that express the impulse of the season.
The daily storytelling weaves together information about the natural world through imaginative characters that also demonstrate and resolve challenges that the children in the class are experiencing, either individually or as a group dynamic.
We are currently a tuition-based school with small-scale fundraising events each year. Yearly tuition is $4500 for our preschool program (3 morning/ week), $5500 for kindergarten (4 days/week) and our grade school program will most likely be $6500 for 5/week. We set these rates so that we have room to offer tuition assistance and work trade options for families that demonstrate a need. Tuition for summer camp ranges from $195 to $250. As we move through the process of becoming our own 501c(3), we are also applying for more grants and foundation money. We accept private donations through our website which, in combination with a generous grant from the Native Iris Fund, is how we were able to purchase the yurt for our grade-school expansion. The drawback of being tuition-based is that the cost of our school is more expensive than would be ideal. We have not raised tuition for the past two years though, and our goal is to begin reducing tuition by 2014-15.
Mother Earth Kindergarten was the first all-outdoor kindergarten in the US. We have been steadily growing to provide outdoor education for more and more children in the Portland area. The first Mother Earth Kindergarten students are now in 3rd grade. Our former students have integrated beautifully into all types of schools. We have developed long-lasting relationships with many of our school families and are now offering training courses. We are excited about our contribution to the expanding impulse that is currently on the rise in this country and to be thought-leaders in combining Waldorf education, permaculture practices and primitive skills in an outdoor immersion farm and forest setting.
Capacities built in the children
Technology often feels invasive, peace and tolerance feel far-fetched and the health of our planet seems dismal. But when witnessing children through the lens of a media-free immersion into the natural world in a loving, secure and joyful environment, none of those problems actually seem to exist. The children are completely open to all possibilities. They are flexible and can gracefully maneuver amidst change. They are compassionate and know that they have the power to heal. They are expressive and joyful and feel validated in who they are. For every disposition, there is a critical contribution that can be made when they are outdoors. This is especially timely for the increasing number of high energy children who have been labeled as 'troublemakers' in a classroom. There are many important outlets for all children at Mother Earth School.
I love thinking about the difference between today's world and the times of Earth-based cultures from the perspective of electricity. What we can achieve today by mindlessly flipping a switch used to require making a carving tool to carve a bow-drill kit to make a friction fire that would need a pile firewood that had been gathered and dried in order to create light and warmth. In many ways we have benefited from the relative ease of our lives in the developed world, but what happens when there is an expectation that has been ingrained for multiple generations that things are easy and provided for us? Are we already seeing some of the detrimental effects of that? I am certain that we are, and that there is more to come.
As far as our more psychological speculations, there is so much current research that reveals the therapeutic effects of nature-based activity. In fact, many types of therapy are based on facilitating movement that children naturally engage in on the farm and in nature play. Interacting with the elements is actually interacting with the chemical make-up of one’s self since human bodies are made of the same elements that comprise nature. We are nature, so to know nature is to know yourself. This can be viewed on a physical, sensory level, but when you look at the energetic meanings of these sensory words such as depth, direction, balance, vision, warmth, and even the word "sense" itself (sensible), the wisdom of the work begins to reveal itself.
It seems to be true that if you learn to love something, you will take care of it. This is applicable to ourselves, each other and the world around us. At Mother Earth School, we are intentional about all that we do. We model authentic care and mindfulness as well as striving. When the adults are raising children to feel comfort and security in a balanced system, they will grow to immediately recognize when a system is out of balance. They will also carry the inner capacity to re-align their surroundings. This need not be an intellectual process but a lived process. I think one of our goals is to put the need for adult permaculture design courses out of business by raising a generation of children who will grow up automatically implementing balanced designs!
Not fitting into a category has been challenging because although it is exciting and leaves room for so many perspectives to be represented, it poses the challenge of figuring out how everything fits together. For example, we are not a "Waldorf" school because we identify with other movements as well, but then we integrate Anthroposophy into those other movements (mainly permaculture and primitive skills) and that leads to the inevitable question: "Anthro what?!" Especially challenging has been finding the common ground between Anthroposophy and social/political activism. As separate movements, these philosophies can rest in the security of their own perspective. Putting them together incorporates an inherent challenge. It is not already familiar. I believe that this is always how change occurs though. Music is an easy example. All new sound came from combining existing sounds. One such movement was named "fusion". That is the way forward. We are excited to create a fusion movement for education, but it takes a lot of energy working to make that happen.
Advice for other programs
I would advise to have an authentic understanding of what you are doing and why you are doing it. It doesn't have to be the same reason that others are doing it, it just has to be very clear and true for you. Also, be very willing to reassess constantly. The priority is the well-being of the children and you will have to make changes from your original vision in order to meet their needs. Ask for feedback and take it humbly. Take the time to develop a heart connection with the parents of the children you are teaching. It takes a village.. Believe in yourself. Learn the laws in your state and see where you can partner with other people and organizations so that you don't have to repeat work that has already been done.