A non-profit school cooperative in Jacksonville Beach celebrates its 25th year with a series of programming designed to highlight its mission and share its history. The Playgarden by the Sea located at 223 8th Avenue South will host an open house from 10:25 a.m. to 2:25 p.m. Saturday with a guided tour of the playful, nature-inspired curriculum. The event will feature music, exploration, bread making, wonder wand making and a lot of fun for all ages. A Morning Garden Tree Dedication ceremony will be held in the front yard with the Playgarden’s first teacher, Sharon Elliott who ran the school out of her home before settling into the current location by the sea.
“It’s basically walking through what a day would be like for the child but it’s open for adults. We’re starting with circle and you can bake bread. There’s story, puppet show, crafts, a lot of pictures to look at the 25-year history and music,” said board member Carrie Zarka Dooley of the event that also honors past alumni who helped shape the program.
“A group of volunteers 25 years ago began this in a Le Leche League. They were reading a book called “You Are Your Child’s First Teacher” by Rahima Baldwin. It was just a different way of raising children and a different form of education. So, they started with playgroups and book study and formed a 501c3 non-profit to get grants and bring in experts from across the country on Waldorf education.”
Operating under the three-pillar system, the board helps make
administrative and policy decisions. The model is comprised of members of the volunteer board, the college of teachers and advisory council all working together as a community.
“Volunteers attend board meetings and help in the decision making. There’s a lot of self-study and cooperation,” said Zarka Dooley. ‘If you can imagine a house having three pillars, all three have to work together to hold it all together. There’s not one person in charge. Working together in community, that is the model for the children and part of the curriculum. Threes are really important. It’s the head, the hands and the heart.”
The Waldorf principles incorporate a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate education to the age group. In the early years, the teaching is play-based and centered around the bond between the child and caregiver and the relationship to the earth. “One of the principles is to raise good stewards of the earth and for them to honor the rhythm of the seasons and the rhythms of nature. It’s really teaching to the heart. Most education focuses on the head. Learn your letters. Here they are. Look at them, write them down over and over again. Touch them on a screen. This takes into consideration using your hands and teaching to your heart,” said Zarka Dooley, who has served on the volunteer board of directors for the past eight years and is presently working toward a Master’s degree in Waldorf Education.
“If you’re out in nature, let’s tell a story about an armadillo who ran across an apple forest. That’s how you would teach A is through a story or fairy tale. If the story is about an angel, children could draw a picture of an angel with the letter represented in the drawing. They see everything in pictures so if you just show them an A without a picture, it doesn’t have the same meaning.” Children may learn to shape the letters with sticks and rocks, molding them out of natural materials with their hands to connect with the tools in their hand – and in their heart. “In the early years, there’s wooden toys and silks, materials made from the earth. They can connect deeper with it because it’s made of what we’re made of essentially. Children are served organic foods and participate in making and serving the snacks as part of the community,” she said.
“It’s taking into consideration the wholeness of the being and the wholeness of the food. It’s through story, it’s through song, they sing throughout the day. The children help prepare the snacks, sit down and set the table together and have a snack together then clean up together. That’s part of the day and it is showing that many hands make a task easier and that you need one another to cooperate. We all need each other in a community.”
In 1995, the original goal was to establish a preschool and kindergarten and move into high school but it retained its original model until just a few years ago when it added the home school enrichment program for upper grade levels through 8th grade. “The middle school program is very new. It really is to give home schoolers a community and help the parents with the education,” Zarka Dooley said.
With the support of a grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, previously called the Jacksonville Community Foundation, the founders identified the need for a whole child approach and developed an innovative format to include parent/child classes, playgroup, parent education discussions, handwork workshops, community puppet shows and seasonal festivals. The group invited Waldorf and LifeWays early childhood consultants into the community to help foster an understanding of the philosophy. They held community outreach and events at libraries, parks, and community centers before establishing a schoolhouse to Elliott’s home. It moved into its current location in 2002.
In the spring of 2014, the Playgarden Community rallied together to purchase the Cottage Schoolhouse and the neighboring building which is now the Kinderhaus, ensuring the possibility of continuation and expansion. It launched the first outdoor kindergarten program in the southeast five years ago to nurture the value and important of environmental stewardship.
“Children celebrate the seasonal festivals of nature to connect with the rhythms of nature. There’s the Fall Festival, the Winter Lantern Walk as the days are getting shorter and there’s less light, it encourages children to honor their own inner light,” said Zarka Dooley. “The school has been doing the lantern walk for 25 years. Everyone goes and camps out at Gold Head and sings 'This Little Light of Mine' during the walk and hears the story of St. Martin,” she said. “In the winter, there’s the winter spiral. That’s when it's really dark and they walk a spiral and light a candle from the center. Then there’s the celebration of spring and it all gets incorporated into the education and a lot of the crafts revolve around that. They change the scenery in the play garden depending on the seasons.”
At its heart, the Playgarden by the Sea balances a natural education with the cooperative elements of a community on a foundational level in a way that is engaging to children and adults. Said Zarka Dooley, “We’re all humans. You can relearn. That is why I’m getting my degree in teaching. The founding teacher, she would say to me that she wanted to create a kindergarten for adults. It feels good. When you walk in, it feels right. It feels like a place you’ve been your whole life. It’s living and it’s beautiful"