Magic on the Hill, Laurel Hill

“In an age of immediacy and unlimited information online, Laurel Hill Nursery School feels like stepping into how things should be.”

                               –Lauren Wiebe on Laurel Hill Nursery School in San Francisco, California

Standing in the playground of the Laurel Hill Nursery School, I make eye contact with an elated child. They stand just shy of the door handle, and press their face against the glass eager to get a peek inside. As soon as their parent completes sign in, the door swings open and the child takes off, bursting into their school day with unleashed joy. 

This happened no less than three times. With each new child, a fresh set of ecstatic eyes attempt to survey what fun is being had without them, eager to join their peers. The question on my mind: what magic is behind this love of learning?

To start, children are quite literally at the center of Laurel Hill Nursery School.

The day is structured around encouraging a child’s innate curiosity, and the adults are at the periphery to facilitate. Practically speaking this means a few tried and true policies. Students “eat when they’re hungry.”  A parent volunteer will sign in and out a child’s food, but there is no predetermined snack time. If a child wants to play with bubbles, an educator encourages them to build a station for bubble mayhem. Children move without restriction from the dramatic play room, to the gross motor skills room, to the outdoor cafe to serve their fellow classmates. Little siblings, just shy of the cutoff, excitedly get to stay an extra few minutes before an apologetic parent takes them home. Older siblings lament their days of freedom-past; now graduated, they’re confined to a desk. There is a vibrancy that is hard to describe, but is easy to witness exuding from the students.

In a time of kindergarten prep, high school prep, and college prep as the norm, play based learning has had to prove its worth. With a standards based shift in the world of education, it’s no wonder parents live with the fear that their child will fall behind. Laurel Hill Nursery School has a decades long commitment to play based learning that has served students and families for generations. Director of the School, Sabrina Mirzaie, describes kindergarten readiness in a student when they are capable of “self regulation, communication, cooperation.” She continues, “A sign for us that the kids are ready to go to kindergarten is when they spend more time negotiating the rules in a game than playing the game. I want to know: can your child go up to someone else and ask them to play? Can they do things for themselves? Can they deal with rejection? Can they ask for help?”

Her perspective mirrors that which can be found on the school’s philosophy page: “Ultimately, the sense of self-esteem and accomplishment enables a child to develop natural inner controls based on self-discipline and creativity rather than inhibitions; on guidance rather than dependence, and on respect for the ideas of one’s self and others.” The beauty of this approach is that self-discipline and respect are best explored through child led play. 

Two preschool students looking at something in one's hand
Is this the secret?

Pre-school is a big transition, for kids and families alike. The school practices a confidence boosting independence that there isn’t always time for at home. Running out the door, of course you’re going to help your little one with their shoes. But at Laurel Hill Nursery School, this is a critical learning moment. A child begging for help might be met with “let’s see how far you can get on your own” or “once I’ve finished my clean up job, I’ll help but you need to get started first.” Help is always there, with a 1 to 5 adult to student ratio a warm face is never far, but this is a chance for a student to learn what they are capable of.

Two children playing in sand with water running through
Or is this the secret?

While the school emphasizes five key materials for play: water, clay, paint, blocks, and sand, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An indoor swing hangs from the ceiling in the gross motor skills room. A piano is open and available in the music and arts room. A two story playhouse is always monitored by an adult and filled with children. An outdoor kitchen creates the perfect environment for concocting potions. Students even have unrequited access to the hose, knowing a clean and dry set of clothes is waiting in their cubby. 

Sounds like chaos, right? Therein lies the magic. The students are astoundingly self-sufficient. They resolve conflict, seek help only when needed, allow their passions to guide them with little inhibitions, and are so stinking happy. It’s beautiful.

Understandably, I wanted to know more about what’s happening behind the scenes. First, it’s key to note that Laurel Hill Nursery School is a co-op. Parents rotate through a once a week 3 hour shift, ensuring play never gets out of hand. Before a volunteer shift, family members meet for 15 minutes every morning with the head of school’s philosophy for a briefing. They discuss patterns teachers noticed with the kids. They problem solve a difficult situation a parent had to deal with last week and new approaches should the challenge arise again. No one goes into their time blind. 

Add in a monthly “business” meeting, where parents begin with their selected committees and then come together to discuss big picture logistics. On top of that, there are a mandatory minimum five parenting continuing education opportunities. These range from lectures from parenting experts to book clubs to discussions on childhood development. The adults are involved, committed, and collaborative in their effort to support the children. Parents and teachers lean on each other, learn from each other, and have their own opportunity to grow.

Kids around grass and roks one pointing to a stone
Finding the heart of the school.

This brings up a final key point. A preschool experience such as this is unfortunately not the norm for so many families. Access to quality early childhood care is astoundingly limited, and certainly a financial strain. A recent study by the US Census showed that over half of kids ages 3-4 in the United States do not attend school. As a co-op, Laurel Hill Nursery School relies on “parent participation as a way to keep the costs low,” according to school head, Mirzaie. Outside support for financial aid is critical in guaranteeing more families can attend institutions like Laurel Hill Nursery School, even with a co-op model. 

In an age of immediacy and unlimited information online, Laurel Hill Nursery School feels like stepping into how things should be. There’s a nostalgia on campus that goes beyond the smell of playdough.

Nothing can speak more highly of a school, no score on a test or data point on a graph, than those little faces peering through the window, eager for another day to be a kid. 

The Laurel Hill Nursery School is a little bit of of magic for children and their parents in San Francisco. The Blue Rose Foundation is honored to help provide some funding for scholarships to allow more children attend and experience it all. Thank you all for your help supporting these opportunities.

Thank you, Lauren for this beautiful peek into this special school.

Laurel Hill Nursery School exterior shot

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