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.”