Featured LifeWays Representative: Jennifer McCall and Hearthstone Forest Preschool

“Be true to yourself.”  “The truth will set you free.” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Living one’s truth and the peace obtained from doing so is highly valued in our culture, yet accessing that inner peace in this complicated world can feel like an intangible mystery, possibly solved through following one’s intuition through an array of experiences, relationships and lessons that ultimately might lead us toward where and who we are meant to be.

I graduated from college with my teaching degree 28 years ago. Over the following 13 years I taught and directed an outdoor education school in Southern Maine, tutored all ages of children, got my Master’s degree in Environmental Education, worked at a Raptor Rehabilitation Center teaching with and rehabilitating hawks and owls, served as a naturalist at a Vermont state park and finally moved to Blue Hill, Maine where I got my Special Education degree to teach high school and elementary Special Education.

None of those jobs left me feeling like I was “living my truth,” although elements of some resounded joyfully within me and felt exactly right.  At the environmental school I realized that working outdoors with children and teaching experientially about the natural world left me energized and connected to the earth.  My lifelong love and affinity for animals continued at the Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center, where I witnessed for the first time the magical way in which children respond to and commune with animals. As a Special Education teacher I was a stable adult for many children who had little nurturing in their lives.

After my son Jack was born, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be spending days away from him while working.  We bought a house on six acres that was perfect for an early childhood program — forests all around the school house site, big lawns to play on, a river running alongside the road I live on, farm animals across the street and on our property and the ocean less than a ten minute walk away.  I prepared to open Hearthstone Forest Preschool in 2005.

All of the money I had to use went into renovating an outdoor shed into a rustic little school house for children.  Plywood floors, a composting toilet and recycled furniture outfitted the space initially and, over the past 15 years, our school has grown.  Thanks to my partner, who the children call “Worker Man Dave” we have added an outdoor classroom/sunroom, a flushing toilet (yay), a renovated kitchen, many garden beds and play structures, a goat pen, a beautiful stone path leading to the school and soon a frog pond will be part of our Hearthstone home.

My approaches to working, playing and learning with children have also transformed over the years, most dramatically after I was introduced to LifeWays style of child care and took the LifeWays Northeast training in 2007 and 2008.

Our LifeWays teachers were (and are) true mentors who led with joy and conviction based on years of their own experiences.  Every hands-on lesson, song, discussion and reading rang true to me as I continued down my LifeWays path. I knew with growing certainty that I had found the key to bringing my heart and working life into true alignment, and after completing the LifeWays training I became a LifeWays Representative Site in 2010.

Hearthstone is now both a LifeWays program and a Forest Preschool, where we spend three seasons a year outside for 75% of the day.  The elements of earth, air, fire and water, local habitats of field, forest, ocean and river and our vibrant seasons are the basis for our curriculum of hands-on experiences.

Creative and work activities, circle verses, songs and puppet stories are directly connected to each surrounding season, using materials primarily provided by the earth – raking leaves, harvesting seeds and drying herbs from our school garden for teas and salves in the fall; outdoor campfires, snow shoveling and fort building in the winter; preparing the garden and tapping trees for maple syrup in the spring;  exploring tide pools, tending the garden and fully experiencing the joy of water in the summer…the reliability of each season carries us forward in beauty and goodness.

The LifeWays model of life as the curriculum elevated my perceptions of activities such as cooking and cleaning within the daily routine of my program into something that children should not only be involved with, but that by allowing them to do so we empower them immensely. The concept of Life Skills as an essential part of an early childhood program was completely new to me. How liberating it was to learn the value of giving time for the children to help contribute to the cooking and tending of the school, the care of the animals, themselves and one another.  The child’s true desire to be part of all that is around them lends itself perfectly to the goal of helping children become capable and competent while they contribute to their special “home away from home.”

The truth of the things that allow children to start slowly growing their roots into the earth they so recently landed upon, while striving upward and onward with strength and love, is simple: fresh air, healthy food, loving relationships, beauty and rhythm, an environment that supports the development of all of their senses, the ability to move and explore, and simple, consistent routines.  The prevailing guidelines and protocols of our country’s current early educational policies have lost sight of these truths, but if enough caregivers and educators remain committed to providing what they know is right for young children and refuse to compromise, the prevailing tide will turn toward a healthier way of authentically caring for little ones.

LifeWays philosophy lends itself powerfully to the healthy development of young children and their families.

“My LifeWays training and experiences have unified my head, heart and hands within the context of my life’s work as a teacher and person blessed with the task of nurturing young children.  I know I am in the right place doing what I am meant to do, and for that I am truly grateful.” ~ Jennifer McCall, Hearthstone Forest Preschool