Featured Program: Seaside Playgarden, Jacksonville, FL by Lynn Coalson

Lynn Coalson writes: Greetings from sunny Northeast Florida, home to Seaside Playgarden, a LifeWays Representative Program, and the first in Florida.  The Seaside Playgarden, located just two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, is a perfect place for children to explore, grow and create. We focus on the whole child: head, heart and hands and offer 2-, 3-, and 5-day programs for children ages 2-1/2 to 6 years of age, weekly Parent/Child Classes and Playgroup twice a month.

Our programs encompass the nurturing arts, domestic arts, the development of deep relationships, social and emotional development, imagination and creativity, and a life-affirming connection with nature…all through Warmth, Rhythm, and Respect. We are very excited to begin our new Forest Kindergarten program, the first in the Southeast USA!

“Forest Kindergarten” is the term often used for programs that meet exclusively out-of-doors.”  Our program takes place with weekly field trips to a local park on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Our local park provides the perfect setting with its pristine Florida scrub hammock, forest, wetland, dunes, and beach all in one location.  The long-term benefits of learning outside in nature are well researched and documented.  Seaside Playgarden will honor the research and provide an exemplary outdoor educational experience for our children.  Just like our traditional program, we recognize the benefits of following a predictable rhythm to bring order to our time in the Forest.  Each part of our Monday/Tuesday rhythm is designed with this in mind and includes circle time, storytime, nature hike, snack, outdoor artistic activities, outdoor cooking and, of course, lots of time for play , observation and wonder.

I was first introduced to Forest Kindergarten during my LifeWays training in Milwaukee. LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee was in their first year of offering an all-outdoor program, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I remember Miss Emily and Mary O’Connell describing how the children began to name their favorite spaces in the forest.

It was during our annual Martinmas family campout that I began to wonder about an all-outdoor day for the children of Seaside. While attending the WECAN conference in February, I also met with the Forest Kindergarten teachers of the Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs, NY.

“Well,” I thought, “if they can do Forest Kindergarten in places like upstate New York and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then we can certainly do it in Florida!”

Ensuring that the children’s interaction with nature is as positive as it can be is a high priority for outdoor programs. This is a big responsibility for the teachers. There are many things beyond our control, and yet we must be prepared to handle anything.

 Here in Florida, there are things to be mindful of in natural areas, like biting insects, venomous snakes and plants, alligators, run outs and rip currents, jellyfish and extreme heat in early autumn. In addition, we need to be prepared for lightning and high winds, especially when we are in the midst of hurricane season. Our Parent Handbook was a joint effort, and several of my board of directors helped write our section on “Severe Weather and Emergency Policies and Procedures.”

After the handbook was completed, we had our first parent meeting.  Each family received their handbook and signed all the necessary permission slips. Finally!

On August 26, 2014, the Forest Kindergarten dream became a reality when our first day of Forest Kindergarten began.

We have 12 children, ages 3-½ to 6, under the watchful care of two teachers, myself and Miss Emily, my assistant, and a volunteer, Jack, a recent college graduate who is an outdoor enthusiast.

After so many months of preparation, all I can say with my heart filled with gratitude for all my mentors and supporters, is, ”Yay! We did it!”