"This is on YOU!"-The Emergence of Hugging Tree Nature Preschool (Melissa's Heal & Rise Story)
When a woman pours her time and energy into nurturing the growth of preschool children, it is much like tending a garden. She prepares her "soil" by seeking knowledge and envisioning her plans, arming herself with a tool belt full of resources. Come good weather or bad, she is there for her little seedlings... watering them in ways most needed and allowing them space to thrive.
Melissa had planted a garden that produced beautifully, the fruits of her labor demonstrated by the children who loved her and families who had the pleasure of witnessing their children's growth. She put ten years of dedication and care into growing this preschool program, only to have her work, mental health, and emotional well-being trampled. Every gardener knows there will be times of challenge. Perhaps a dog on the loose plowing through the near-ready veggies, or the accidental mowing over of an herb too close to the edge of the garden bed. But a bitter and intentional, repetitive attack on the garden tended with love for so many years? That's a different feeling altogether.
It was the year following the arrival of Covid, and the church where this preschool was housed held a meeting to determine the future of the program. Despite many families already scheduled to attend and counting on the presence of this school, there was pressure from those in power to simply shut it down. Melissa knew the importance of the program being available and with many families in support of it continuing, they soldiered on. She was committed to tending the garden with continued dedication out of service to these families. Unfortunately, those who disagreed with her passion for keeping the preschool alive decided to make it challenging.
"This is on YOU!"
she was told with a finger pointed in her face, implying that the entire responsibility of the preschool was riding on her shoulders. She went on to endure negativity and harassment, false accusations and invasions of her privacy. Finally, she knew she must leave and the behaviors that followed only affirmed her decision.
"I had PTSD from the whole experience," she shared. "I would wake up in the morning anxious and with my heart racing... I couldn't sleep... my hair was falling out."
Thankfully, as her prior garden of education was becoming more and more trampled... Melissa was planting a new seed. She'd envisioned a preschool where children were supported in their natural growth and learning. Her goals of bringing this dream, nurturing this seed, to life were what kept her going during the most challenging of days. She knew there was more for her than this restrictive and abusive environment.
So she made plans.
This promising seed of an idea, a nature-based learning preschool called Hugging Tree Nature Preschool, emerged in the fall of 2021 with her first small class. Nestled near the Hartman Nature Reserve woodlands, river, and trails, she has created a space for children to blossom at their own pace and in their own unique ways. From catching and studying frogs and toads, to learning about fire safety and building their own fire to keep warm on chilly Iowa mornings, these students are experiencing the strength and beauty of Mother Nature firsthand. They can be found playing in the sandbox, cooperatively making tree forts and mud kitchen meals, or reading together under the shade tree. Each week they are outside for as many hours as they're able to be, only retreating indoors if lightning strikes or winter wind chills become unsafe.
With the increase of pressure on teachers impacted by the current climate of the country and skyrocketing levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns among children and adults alike, perhaps this style of education holds some answers. There is no question that we're in need of a shift. A re-configuring of how we raise our young ones. A refreshing sense of honor and respect of one another and the natural environment we live within.
When asked what changes she would like to see within education, Melissa shared:
"One change I would like to see is for the importance of free play to be supported from early childhood all the way through high school and beyond. Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” Imagine what students could learn and discover if given an hour of uninterrupted, non-teacher directed, free play!
Another change I would like to see is that the curriculum, especially in early childhood and early elementary, is developmentally appropriate. For example, research shows that children who read at a very young age don’t stay ahead of their peers in reading in the later grades. It all evens out. Knowing that, why pressure preschool and kindergartners to learn to read when they are not ready? This sets up failure and frustration for the student, teacher, and family. Why not meet the children where they are developmentally at and build from there?
I would also love to see children spend more time outside. It doesn’t necessarily have to be recess, it could be storytime, a math lesson, free reading, art, anything really! There are so many benefits to being outdoors!
One last change I would love to see is that parents support the teachers. I am SO SO SO lucky to have wonderful families that support my crazy ideas, but I know many teachers do not have that support. It is not just the parents’ or teachers’ responsibility to educate their children, it is everyone’s responsibility."
The idea, research, and hard work to begin Hugging Tree Nature Preschool may have been all on her, but Melissa is now surrounded by students and families that believe in her mission fully. Her next goals include the purchasing of a van capable of taking students on more local learning excursions and building a greenhouse for students to learn in when weather makes outdoor learning challenging. The best gardens grow when many hands come together to tend them. If you'd like to support Melissa's goals, please consider donating here to allow more children to be guided by the Hugging Tree Mission:
The mission of Hugging Tree Nature Preschool is to meet the needs of the whole child, while nurturing a lifelong appreciation of the natural world.