A garden is a space for growth. It’s a space to admire nature, all while tending to herbs, fruits, veggies…the works!

But here at the J, it’s also a space to reflect and learn. The Early Learning School’s recently renovated garden is a place where our youngest members are learning life skills and valuable lessons through the Sheva Lenses every single day.

Some of you reading this might remember a garden near the front of our building’s main entrance––this was about ten years ago. Fast forward to 2019 and the ELS Garden is now located in a special little space between our outdoor terrace and the ELS playground––the perfect, secure nook for our adventurous students.

The two brains behind this endearing endeavor? Stephanie Leen and Josh Rifkin––two incredibly gifted ELS teachers at the J (who aren’t necessarily willing to take the credit, but we’ll come back to that!). We spoke with Stephanie and Josh to learn more about this heartwarming project.

“One of our goals is to teach kids to be stewards of nature,” says Rifkin.

“Kids are spending more time inside, they’re spending more time with screens––there’s a major disconnect between the natural world and the world that they live in.”

Adding on to his point, Stephanie is quick to add, “We want our outdoor environment to be the third teacher––until this new garden space took shape, we weren’t putting enough of a focus on that.”

This concept of learning through nature is a fundamental part of the Reggio Emilia approach and the Sheva Lenses––two sets of intrinsic philosophies that go hand-in-hand, specifically in the Jewish learning community.

Josh explains, “Reggio Emilia is this philosophy that came out of Italy after WWII––this small town got together and said, ‘We can never let this happen again. What can we do to make sure this never happens to our world again?’”

While carving out the Reggio Emilia philosophy, this idea of “reflection” (Hebrew: Masa/ מסע) echoed throughout and remained a key takeaway. As a result, one of the sole purposes for the ELS Garden was to promote this idea of reflection.

“85% of brain growth takes place between the ages of zero and three,” says Stephanie. “It was important to emphasize this idea of reflection––make decisions based off of reflection and start early.”

How do the students learn from and contribute to the garden? Well…from our research and conversation with Stephanie and Josh––they do just about everything! From planting special spices for Havdalah, to growing and harvesting vegetables for the class guinea pigs––ELS kids can do it all. The best part? They learn so much along the way, thanks to the “intentional learning” our ELS teachers instill within each child.

“We don’t give our kids flashcards or worksheets, but if we tie it into their natural experience, it will click in a way that will excite them––that’s a big piece of our philosophy, how do we take their natural play and turn it into a learning experience” says Josh.

One of the ways in which the students learn? Measuring the growth of the plants they have helped nurture. Josh continues, “Our students learn numeracy through measuring the plants–-they will remember that forever. They want to measure everything now! That’s why we truly believe in our philosophy––it’s easier to take something that they’re interested in then to shove them into something that is not part of their nature. We don’t want to ruin their relationship to learning.”

Stephanie adds, “there’s not one child who is unhappy to come to the garden or the playground––they want to be outside. It increases their natural curiosity.”

Overall, the ELS Garden has worked to create a natural, welcoming environment for students to learn and play––two concepts that go together like macaroni and cheese.

Now, while Josh and Stephanie were key players in this garden’s creation and success, they’re reluctant to take the credit; rather, they choose to spread the love and support equally amongst their peers. When asked to say a few words about each other, Josh shares that Stephanie, “is an instrumental part of making this space the way it is––it was a playground before, but she has turned it into an intentional space. She systematically brings in classes almost weekly to have intentional experiences in the garden. She’s showing teachers how to use this space.”

Stephanie, humble and remarkably observant states, “Josh brought his expertise, his knowledge of the Sheva lenses, to this garden.” She adds, “not a single one of these explorations would have come to fruition had it not been for Josh’s persistent advocating for a garden space to be created in the first place. It is Josh who is solely responsible for the planting and replanting of gardens past and present and it is Josh who is responsible for making sure that it those garden seeds grow not only in their bed of soil but in the hearts and minds of children and educators. Josh was the person who, I believe, reminded us just how much joy, love, and learning can exist when a garden becomes such a part of the world in early childhood education.”

Ultimately, both Josh and Stephanie conclude that each and every teacher in the ELS has “moved the garden forward.” Josh shares, “I credit Sarah Roberts hugely––she has carved out sacred time and space––the lense of Kedusha, this idea of carving out special time for important things to happen––and that’s what dictates this space.”

In this sacred time and space, each teacher conducts their own experiments and lessons with their class. For example, Stephanie shares, “Paula is doing science projects outside with her class––one kid wanted to learn about bug homes and she sectioned off a space for his bug homes to live, some kids build homes for the lady bugs.” This is a prime example of how our ELS teachers strive to tailor each learning experience to a student’s unique interests, needs, and observations. Without a doubt, the outstanding skills harbored by our ELS teachers have made this special space one-of-a-kind for our ELS students.

As I, the writer of this piece, take a moment to step back and reflect on this harmonious space…it all becomes clear: The garden has become a sanctuary for our students and teachers. While observing the garden, feelings of warmth, knowledge, and creativity appear to ripen among the garden’s bounty. Throughout the vivid greenery of the ELS Garden, young, brilliant children, while growing themselves, tend to the growth and vitality of nature herself. Is there anything more beautiful than that?

As we wrap up this piece, I’ll leave you with one final, heartwarming observation from Josh Rifkin:

“Rich spaces create rich experiences.”

And guess what, ELS Team? The ELS Garden is a textbook example of a ‘rich space,’ and we know for a fact that our students are creating rich experiences within it’s walls.

Thank you ALL for creating and fostering this special space for our kids to learn and play.