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The Playgarden began as a vibrant Jacksonville Beach neighborhood playgroup in 1995 formed by parents who wished to offer an early childhood educational setting inspired by Waldorf Principles to their own children. These founding parents, supported by a grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida (previously called the Jacksonville Community Foundation) saw the need for a whole child approach and developed an innovative format that included parent/child classes, playgroup, parent education discussions, handwork workshops, community puppet shows, and seasonal festivals. In 1997, utilizing grant funds, the founding families brought Waldorf and LifeWays early childhood consultants to the community, deepening their understanding of the philosophy as they also planned community outreach and events at libraries, parks, and community centers. The group soon moved from local parks to a schoolhouse and then in 2000 located in the home of their first teacher, Sharon Eliot.
In 2002, as the programming deepened, and their numbers grew, the founding families realized they needed a schoolhouse. They settled into the current location - a little white cottage steps from the ocean in Jacksonville Beach. During this time, the founders incorporated as a 501(c)3 non profit entity, formed a governing Board of Directors and hired an administrator. The Playgarden became the first Lifeways of North America representative site in Florida, and continued the work of nurturing, supporting and strengthening families, reinforced by a national network of early childhood educators. For over a decade, hundreds of families graced the doors of The Playgarden; their children learning through creative free play, artistic activity, circle time, story time, and practical life arts. In 2012, some of the parents and board members felt a calling beyond the walls of The Playgarden. With consideration for their growing children in mind, they moved on to create a public charter school in the beaches.
In the spring of 2014, the beautiful beach cottage that had housed so much magic and laughter was listed for sale by its owners. The Playgarden Community rallied together to purchase the Cottage Schoolhouse and the neighboring building (now the Kinderhaus), ensuring the possibility of continuation and expansion. The many seeds that had been planted had grown into a plentiful garden, and now stretched their roots deep into the strong earth to find a permanent home. Community members aligned their abilities and strengths and in one summer prepared the building and grounds for expanded programming.
In late summer 2014, The Playgarden was awarded a grant from the Jacksonville Children’s Endowment at the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. This generous funding provided three staff members with Lifeways of North America teacher certification and an additional three staff members with Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten training. In August 2014, The Playgarden initiated the first Forest Kindergarten in Florida, led by innovative and energetic lead teacher Lynn Coalson. In the fall of 2014, The Playgarden also initiated the return of Parent/Child Classes as a way to reignite the community relationships that occur naturally within the school’s life, and to support families with younger children. In 2015, families of the Playgarden formed a home school enrichment program inspired by Waldorf Education called Spring River School, which blossomed into a weekly educational offering for the community. With each coming year, the Playgarden will continue to provide a unique educational experience that celebrates the wonder of early childhood, reverence for the natural world, respect for each other, and the collective support found within the school community.
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