As I have been a teacher for over a decade in several Santa Monica preschools, along with teaching in early childhood for over 27 years (both in New York and LA), I feel like I have a unique perspective on the Santa Monica preschools scene. As both a teacher and a parent, I have been privy to several different educational approaches and environments. I have had the pleasure of learning about different modalities of teaching through practice and immersing myself in various schools and school communities. Before I became a preschool teacher at LA Nature Kids, Southern California’s first and longest-running Forest school, (where I currently work), I had the pleasure of working at some of the ”best” and most beloved preschools in the cities I have called home.
My first preschool teaching job was at a little school in Greenwich Village called “University Plaza Nursery School”. It was a school that was attended mostly by children whose parents had some connection with NYU and it was a very sweet, mostly traditional preschool. The director, Fran Walfish, had been teaching preschool for over 50 years and she taught me many of the basic tenets of early childhood education and child development. I did not know much about pedagogy or childhood programs at the time as I had worked only as a nanny and babysitter, but working with Fran gave me a strong foundation in early childhood education which enabled me to be hired at several New York and Los Angeles preschools.
When I moved back to my hometown of Santa Monica in March 2001, I began teaching at “The First School”. It is an excellent child care center and educational day care programs for toddlers , “mommy and me” parent- and pre-k. I would say it was slightly traditional, strongly developmental, and it was well-loved in the community. The teachers were warm and intelligent and the families were involved and happy.
The Traditional Approach to Learning
Now, you might ask, “what is a traditional preschool”? I would answer that the traditional school model looks like what most of us have probably experienced in schools at some point in our lives. Traditional schools utilize conventional methods of teaching and managing students that have been long established over the years. Currently, in most schools a less traditional approach is common but the traditional model still has a stronghold as the basis for most teaching (I think) as it is the most widely known. That said, any teacher who continues their study of pedagogy can build on the traditional method to expand it, and that is just what I did; I decided to try my hand at a progressive school next.
The Progressive Education Curriculum
This school was ”Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences”. Full disclosure: I am a graduate of Crossroads, so I knew something about progressive education before working there. “Progressive” education interested me because of its “hands-on” curriculum and I knew from my own experience it was an exciting academic approach that was highly effective in giving me a lifelong love of learning and curiosity and a strong foundation. It also introduced me to the idea that we all learn in our own ways and have our unique gifts. We might be great at math and terrible at writing, or we might have very little interest in academia altogether. Music or sports might be our thing, and that is just fine. I would say Crossroads introduced me to ‘whole child” learning/teaching and I was excited to work in this environment.
Progressive schools tend to be more “child-centered” and are more focused on the process of learning rather than the final product like test score and grades. I observed teaching practices where students were active learners and autonomy was encouraged through project-based learning and involvement in the school community. I worked for several years at Crossroads during which time I became a parent (more on that later). The progressive approach was right up my alley and felt very natural and intuitive to me. Our professional development opportunities were abundant and it was an academic experience I could feel good to have a hand in.
My Introduction to the Reggio Emilio Academic Program
At some point during my tenure there we got a new art teacher and she was PHENOMENAL! The work she did with the kids was so thoughtful and rich and her teaching method was incredible. I soon learned that she had been the Atelierista at “First Presbyterian Nursery School”.For those of you not familiar with that role, it is an integral one in the Reggio Emilia approach. The Atelierista is the person who is responsible for making the learning in the school “visible” and is also known for facilitating ongoing projects across classrooms. Laura Alvarez was a master teacher and her own children were wonderful students. Both of her boys were in my class at different times, and both were kind, talented, and intelligent boys. Thanks to Laura I was brought to my next pedagogical approach: The aforementioned Reggio Amelia-inspired approach. However, my introduction would be as a parent at the school, and what I saw blew me away.
First Presbyterian Nursery School, Reggio Emilia Inspired Educational Program
First Presbyterian Nursery School, or “First Pres” as it’s known to the many families and teachers who have been lucky enough to be part of this neighborhood school community, was a well-loved and well-attended school for decades before it became even more well-known as a ”Reggio Emilia Inspired” school. It was one of the first schools in California to begin to study and implement the “Reggio Emilia” inspired approach in 1991. The beloved director at the time, Mary Hartzell, a leader and champion for early childhood education and families had read an article in Newsweek on the “10 best schools in the world” and the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia were mentioned. What was described in their educational philosophy resonated with Mary so much that she contacted the school and made a connection that would begin a lasting collaboration with Amelia Gambetti, one of Reggio Emilia’s premier teachers and lecturers on the history of the Reggio Schools and philosophy. Amelia, in her early years of teaching, worked with Loris Malaguzzi himself, the founder of this approach. She is a Master Teacher and has worked with universities and educational institutions all over the world.
Mary brought teachers to Reggio Emilia for professional development and teachers from Reggio Emilia came to Santa Monica to lead workshops and implement practices. To be fair, many of the ideas outlined in the “Reggio” philosophy were already core beliefs and practices at First Pres, but the Reggio Emilia approach was exciting to Mary as it used documentation, constructivism, and a strong focus on “relationships” to achieve its goals. The Reggio Emilia approach is one where teachers are researchers, the environment is the ”third teacher”, and parents, teachers, and children are the three ”protagonists” in the child’s educational experience. Of course, there is so much more to this approach, but those are a few of the principles.
After being a parent at this exclusive school for many years, I went on to become a teacher at the school because I felt it was a vigorous and exciting method of teaching. I had many happy years at First Pres, and it was there, when I saw documentation titled ”Where is Cruz?’ that I first learned of LA NATURE KIDS, what I hope to be the school I retire from.
Expeditionary Learning in a Forest School
Cruz had left First Pres to attend LA Nature Kids. When I asked about LA Nature Kids a teacher told me it was “an outdoor preschool that was play based”. That sounded amazing to me as I had grown weary of the increased focus on academics at First Pres. I will skip the long story of how I ended up at LA Nature Kids, but I will say that from the perspective of a teacher who has worked in many Santa Monica preschools and settings, I find the expeditionary learning at a forest school to be the strongest and best way for preschoolers to develop. I find this to be especially true in the modern world we live in.
Nature provides the richest, most dynamic, interesting, and most beautiful classroom. It is ever-changing and unpredictable in a way the classroom is not. In the classroom environment, children will gravitate to the area where they feel most comfortable and will avoid things they are uncertain of. In the forest, there are times when you have to do something you’d rather not do. Adaptability and awareness are essential and built into each day. The curriculum is emergent; a bug approaches, a riverbed is dry, a child is afraid to climb a tree… Children support one another, find solutions, and make hypotheses about how something came to be. Materials and space are abundant. I believe this directly correlates to why we have so little conflict in our school. Children get to move and explore without the confines of a room or the direction of a teacher. We don’t tell them how to explore nature; It is intuitive to them. In our bustling city, with our busy schedules, I believe it is imperative to give our youngest citizens time to play, enjoy the natural world, to see their part in it and to just be.
The Many Santa Monica Preschools to Choose From
Santa Monica and the west Los Angeles area have incredible schools. Whether its a boutique preschool or one of the many culturally-rich schools with smart, dedicated teachers such as Cassidy, Beacon Hill Nursery School, Santa Monica Nursery School, Piper, The Growing Place, Palisades Preschool (where my co-teacher worked for years), Seaside Academy, Beth Shalom Temple Nursery School, Santa Monica Montessori, 10thStreet Preschool, and First Years (to name a few) I think Forest Schooling gives them all a run for their money.