“A Permaculture School Dream! Interview with Joanna Claassen, Co-Founder, The Oakland Project for Ecology and Early Childhood Education (P.E.E.C.E.)” by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine

P.E.E.C.E. Philosophy -

* Children need a community of caring adults & children, replicating the role of extended families and neighborhoods.
* Eco-­‐literacy builds healthy children
* Hands on learning
* Child-­‐centered curriculum
* Outdoor classroom designed around Permaculture ethics and practices
* We are all engaged in teaching & learning

* * * * * * *

Interview with Joanna by Willi -

How will you work with kids to plan the school grounds and curriculum?

Meeting kid’s ideas with teaching resources (tools, resource materials etc.) is what keeps the role as a teacher endlessly exciting.

During the initial school design children will be involved less; this will be mapping out the play areas, storage and gardens. During this phase we will be working more with families, builders and permaculture designers to create a school layout that makes sense.

Once the school is open children will come in the door with their ideas and interests and will show us how they interpret the space. As teachers we have the opportunity to help the children to realize their ideas, this can look like bringing in cardboard and fabric to transform an area into a spaceship or planting a garden in the shape of a rainbow. This is the creativity that I love, children are excellent at thinking and dreaming big and as a teacher I like to see how we can actualize children’s ideas as much as possible within the bounds of safety and with the resources we can put together. Reaching out to the broader community to find the mentors and resources to expand on children’s ideas naturally enriches the experience for all.

Are there Transition values at work here?

Our school values of harmony with nature, inquiry and community are in direct alliance with Transition values. Children will develop the collaboration, respectful communication and group skills that are valued in the Transition movement. The school will also provide hands on experience with community resiliency activities such as gardening, harvesting, seed saving.

Which permaculture ethics and principles are you incorporating in P.E.E.C.E. ?

All of them. But I will just be specific about a few. The permaculture ethics: Care of the Earth, Care of People, Fair Share, Care of the Earth:

We are creating a school where children have long term direct experience with the natural world and sustainability practices such as gardening, composting, caring for animals and using natural and recycled play materials.

Care of People & Fair Share:

Our business plan is based on offering an increasing number of sliding scale enrollment slots for lower income families each year for the first three years as well as living wages for our teachers.

The permaculture principles that resonate particularly strongly with this project are:

1. Observe and interact- In a classroom this is happening constantly, whether introducing new curriculum or helping children as they develop conflict resolution skills. We observe and then adjust the smallest amount to make the changes we desire. But in regards to starting this program, this value resonates in that it is an endless cycle of learning with nothing lost in “failure” as long as we continue to learn. The problem that I want to address is that children, especially those growing up in cities such as Oakland, do not have sufficient access to rich natural play environments which they need that for their own well being as well as for the future wellbeing of our planet.

2. Use small and slow solutions: Right now I am running a part time forest preschool program in one of the local parks. This is a response to not having located a permanent school site yet. I am so grateful to have had this time to experiment with teaching young children in the wilderness, it has been incredibly rewarding and I am so glad I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to feel the benefits of taking kids out of man made spaces and into the wide spaces.

What existing pre-school models, organizations and leaders play a role?

Many programs and philosophies have been working on outdoor and sustainability early education for decades but Richard Louve’s book: Last Child in the Woods, was influential in sparking a movement towards reconnecting children with nature and researching the consequences of what Louve calls “nature deficit disorder.” The Children and Nature Network and the Outdoor Classroom Project are a few of these organizations that were influenced by Louve’s work.

In Europe there is a long tradition of Forest Kindergartens, which are almost exclusively outdoor schools for children ages 3-6. Another distinguishing characteristic of Forest Kindergartens is that the teacher’s role is to assist rather than lead. There are Forest Kindergartens in California such as the Tender Tracks Trails and Tales in Palo Alto and the Wild Roots Forest School in Santa Barbara. Esalen Institute’s Gazebo Park School is another long time model for early ecology education, which has inspired many teachers and programs internationally.

Why did you select the Esalen Institute’s Gazebo Park School as a template?

Esalen’s Gazebo Park School is unique in many ways first, it is a full-day all outdoor program, providing full day of child care makes the program accessible to working parents. Second, it was where I saw the tangible differences in how children with deep nature connection relate to the world, in their abilities as well as in their understanding of the cycles of life and death, food and waste and how they play. Third it is a school within a community, parents and teachers are neighbors and friends; there is a commitment to supporting children’s wellbeing that goes beyond this school year. As the children are not locked behind tall fences away from the rest of the community there is more possibility for the children to learn from the community, anyone from the garbage man to the farmer may be consulted as a guest teacher to answer children’s questions. Many community members also contribute financially to support the school; it inspires me when a community is willing to pay it forward so that the next generation of parents with young children can have affordable childcare.

There are other schools that have used the Gazebo Park School as an inspiration; Sonoma State’s Children’s School is one such program. Within each different context the practices and environment will be different, I am excited to use the inspiration and knowledge that I received working at Gazebo School to create a program uniquely suited to the East Bay. The environments we create for children teach them about their world, whether it is a concrete and plastic square or an oasis full of trees, flowers and art materials. I want to create a place of beauty, community and creativity that inspires children and adults to live joyfully and harmoniously in ways we haven’t yet seen.

How much might it cost to send a kid to your school?

The annual tuition would break down to sliding scale rates of between $35-$70 per day depending on income level and availability. On the high side, the tuition is comparable to other high quality childcare in the East Bay.

Are you applying for government grants and/or private loans?

I am applying for private grants and I will be asking for help from our community using crowd funding. If necessary I may apply for private loans.

How did you put together the planning team?

A colleague of mine introduced me to a mother living in Oakland who had visited the Gazebo School and wanted that educational experience for her son. That parent introduced me to another and the word spread to like-minded parents and teachers. I have also received a lot of support from Directors of similar programs. I feel very fortunate to have many talented and dedicated parents, community organizers and teachers who want to see this project succeed.

“… a community of children and caring, thoughtful adults.” What does this look like; how might this work?

Schools are naturally places where community is formed and where cultural values are affirmed or transformed. We all benefit from healthy connections, within the school (between children and between children and adults) and also outside the school (between families and school, families and one another and between the greater community and school). School’s can offer some of the support that had previously been found in extended families and neighborhoods, such as ride sharing, information sharing, celebrating together etc. It is important especially when caring for young children that parents and teachers take the time to develop trusting relationships, this is done informally and also by designing in documentation, parent education and family events.

Please share a design for a “pocket of natural playscape.” What are the elements?

Playscapes are playful landscapes or natural playgrounds with as little man made components as possible. Playscapes are open ended, so that children’s imagination and creativity are the fostered instead of a more closed ended structure such as a plastic play structure shaped like pirate ship, which dictates the setting of children’s games. When I design natural playscapes I like to use stumps of various sizes, recycled lumber, rocks, plants, trees or shrubs that are present, changes in elevation and sometimes straw bales, fabric or cardboard.

What are your ideas for a safety plan?

All schools are required to have a safety plan. One thing that will be different is that we will have a higher adult to child ratio then traditional schools. Natural play areas are often safer than conventional playgrounds as they don’t have such high areas to fall from. Additionally when children have regular access to hands on activities and physical challenges their coordination, balance and judgment is improved which helps children to be healthier and less injury prone. I met an occupational therapist that writes prescriptions for children to play bare foot in nature.

Have you found any land yet for the school?

We are in a conversation with one site but we are still looking. Please contact me with any leads.

Connections –

Joanna Claassen, MA
Joannaroseclaassen at gmail.com

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