Anna is an educator, mentor, author – and one of the best kept secrets in the world of education. Her Saratoga home adjoins the home of her parents, Betty and Willys Peck, and the Heritage Garden. A visit here is what has been described as “a little like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole”. Imagination runs rampant with winding garden paths, ivy-covered walls, flowing creek, an amphitheater, printing shop, train, and a large area with tables and benches for “cultural change through conversation”. The gardens and meeting spaces are steeped with history, yet rippling with new ideas.
MR: Over many decades, there have been countless community gatherings here – early childhood forums, festivals, plays and musical offerings. And these beautiful natural surroundings are also your childhood home.
AR: Sitting outside here in our back garden, and hearing the creek and looking around and seeing the beauty of the buckeyes, and the oaks, and the redwoods – just being surrounded by this beautiful nature reminds me of all the gifts that I have received from growing up here. I know the healing, long lasting impressions that a childhood, with nature as a close companion, really makes.
MR: You wear so many hats – even within the field of education, it’s challenging to be content with just one description of your work. Can you share a little about your work as an early childhood educator?
AR: After thirty years of classroom teaching, I have the privilege of mentoring and working with teachers all over the United States and abroad to remind them about the importance of children’s connection with the natural world and ways to cultivate that – especially the lost art of play.
MR: Tell me more about your work with teachers and parents in relationship to play.
AR: As teachers and parents, we can give the opportunity and permission – uninterrupted time and a safe place – for the young child to play, and for all of us to play. To do this, we have to enter into a state of trust. This is what a colleague calls “Buddha presence”, the sense that all is well.
The job of the teacher or adult is to provide that sacred space and moment, that sense of wellbeing. Maybe it isn’t hours of uninterrupted play – maybe it is just a few moments, but these moments can carry a child for a long time. These strung together moments are the treasures we have in life. For a child, it is a gift to be with an adult who is a guardian of those moments.
MR: You talk to teachers and parents about the importance of the senses in learning – can you speak more about that?
AR: What we have in common with every other being is the ability to relate to the world through our senses. It is how we learn, how we experience the world when we’re young — through touching, exploring, tasting, smelling, eating, hearing and seeing. These impressions go very deep.
The importance of the senses have been explored and honored by various educators and educational leaders, especially people in the therapeutic world. Jean Ayers, who worked with sensory integration, described this as a learning pyramid with the senses as the absolute foundation and academics or concepts at the very top. Before concepts you have to build strong beginnings through, not just your five senses, but also through movement and touch and balance. This is an important model to use and consider as a parent and teacher and human being. What makes your thinking possible is that you once experienced your thought through your senses.
When you observe children learning, you can feel the sense of wellbeing that inspires them to reach out and to touch things and to experience the textures and all the physical attributes of the world. And those foundational senses are what put children in touch with themselves, make them feel at home in their body and at home in the world.
The wonderful thing about the senses is how children cultivate and free them through play — old fashioned, undirected, free flowing, spur of the moment, courageous play. It’s play that’s daring to do your own thing, step into your own world, be the queen or the king.
And with nature, even in the most challenging circumstances, we can weave a common history together with experiences visiting an old tree or seeing the clouds and the sun and experiencing rain and the breezes and the weather. The weather is fabulous nature! Our job is to create little nature moments – even inside, we can sing about and imagine nature – and it will come to life.
What we should be doing in education is just delighting and feeding children’s senses, so that they can carry these fantastic memories to the next step and have something upon which to build.
My colleague, Rosario Villisana- Ruiz, and I have been working with the early childhood department at Escuela Popular (in San Jose) with over one hundred students and twenty-two teachers. We helped to realign their indoor environment, and now we are working on the outdoor environment to be sense filled – in the simplest and richest of ways – less is more! Those teachers have thrived, taking the idea and totally transforming their rooms into havens for young children with very simple natural materials, beautiful hand made things and a curriculum that feeds all the senses.
MR: What do you consider important in your life?
AR: I would say that it is important to cultivate the feeling of joy. That doesn’t mean it has to be easy. Joy comes from hard work – it’s all about relationships. In remedial education, joy is about removing hindrances. One kindergarten teacher says, “We are the window washers!” It’s all about making things possible – I think that’s what it is.