NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 19, 2012

Spreading the secret

Newbury school brings nature into the classroom

By Katie Lovett Features Editor
Newburyport Daily News

---- — The Rev. Nancy Haverington doesn’t stop smiling as she talks about the nature-based learning center offered by First Parish Church.

She can’t contain her excitement as she strolls through the learning stations in the backyard of the Newbury church, pausing by the different areas where the young students, ages 2 through 5, play and learn.

But that’s only natural. After all, the design plan and idea for the program all came from her.

Haverington launched the center after witnessing the success of the church’s Sunday school program for children with special needs several years ago. As she listened to parents express appreciation and delight in their children’s accomplishments, Haverington mulled the idea of opening a school that would be open to the entire community. The school would be a nature-based learning center, where, ultimately, children will spend half of their day outside learning and the rest of the time indoors.

Haverington got to work, putting her thoughts down on paper and figuring out ways to move from the design stage to reality. As she drafted her education plan, Haverington said, she sought to expand upon the Montessori system.

“For an indoor/outdoor preschool, the outdoors is as important as what happens inside,” Haverington said. “Nature is the context in which natural sense of wonder and curiosity lead them to want to learn.”

Named for the famous book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Our Secret Garden Nursery and Preschool opened its doors last fall. As they prepare for a first anniversary celebration tomorrow, Haverington and staff continue to look to the future and ways to expand upon their unique curriculum.

With an alphabet path, created by Newbury artist Michael Updike, guiding the way around the yard, children are free to stop and explore various elements of the learning center — all of which incorporate elements from the outdoors. The playground boasts only natural equipment, including a spider balance beam made from logs and a tepee house made from branches and twigs. An art area holds easels created from wood and tree trunk seats. There’s a sand pit, a bird sanctuary, butterfly garden, pumpkin patch and an organic garden where the kids can grow and tend to vegetables. Plans call for the installation of an outdoor theater where plays and performance can be staged, and an outdoor play kitchen where kids can make mudpies, among other concoctions.

Designing the area, Haverington said, she referred back to her own childhood. “It allowed me to crawl into myself and think, ‘when I was little, what did I wish I had?’”

“Everyone has been so generous,” Haverington said of the community. “Everything (you see) is donated.”

As today’s children prepare for a future world that most of today’s adults can’t even fathom, schools must offer a curriculum that centers on nourishing their curiosity and creativity, Haverington said.

Eventually, Haverington said, the staff hope students’ families and the entire community will use the center for outdoor lectures, workshops and discussions.

Once indoors, the fun continues, Haverington said, as children visit the inhabitants of a state-of-the-art science center, run by Haverington’s son, Jude, a library, math center, art area, and music and theater section. There’s a separate space for toddlers to play and learn.

The school is state-licensed and follows the state’s tuition guidelines. Haverington’s long-term plan calls for adding more grade levels as the school continues to grow.

“We can’t imagine them going from this to a desk,” she said