Homegrown preschool

Families collaborate on school, and fun, for little kids.

Homegrown preschoolers. Photo by David Welch

Under a cheerful September sun, families from across the Island gathered in Owen Park for an annual ritual — the Not Back to School Picnic. Toddlers smooshed ripe strawberries into their eager mouths. Mothers shared advice about soothing night terrors, commiserate about juggling work and home, and traded recipes for apple bread. Kids tumbled in the grass, gleefully mostly, but occasionally in tears as they skinned elbows and knees and went running to their parents for first-aid kisses. And everyone talked about lighthouses in anticipation of the annual tour of the very cool one on Cape Pogue.

The event was the kickoff celebration for Homegrown Preschool, an innovative educational community now in its fifth year. In this informal collaborative, parents from 25 families with preschool-age children take turns organizing enriching experiences. Activities grow organically in this group, guided by children’s questions, inspired by parental passions, and enriched by the Island’s unique resources. In the process, the adults and their kids forge meaningful connections while having a blast.

“Homegrown has provided my children the chance to experience so many activities that are special to the Island, like cranberry harvesting,” said Guinevere Cramer, a mother who has been in the group for three years, while balancing two jobs. “I am grateful for not only the activities but the friends we’ve made over the years.”

Cookbook author and fellow Homegrowner Sarah Waldman was missed, as it was a work day for her, but there was hopeful chatter circulating about the possibility of her leading another pie-making workshop. Mothers commented on a recent article in Boston Magazine about homeschooling. Someone reminded us about the fall ice skating registration deadline. Links to these resources were shared on the spot.

Homegrown is a school with no building, no desks or textbooks. Member families stay in touch with weekly emails written and distributed by a volunteer coordinator, who alerts the community about upcoming events. (Angie Francis just passed this job on to yours truly.) Occasional members “reply-all” to broadcast birthday party invites and pleas for babysitters.

Some children go on to traditional Island schools, and some continue to be homeschooled through elementary grades and beyond. Many families are still making their way through education choices  for their preschoolers and homeschool looms on the horizon for them, especially in light of the current testing and standards climate.

And where do we educate our children? On any given weekday morning, Homegrowners can be found feeding pigs at the FARM Institute, kayaking in Sengekontacket Pond (with Collin and Kian’s mom, Chick Dowd of Island Spirit Kayaking), or learning about fire safety from West Tisbury’s “Fireman Jesse.”

Homegrown founder Robin Allee, whose daughter is now 8, recalls of their Homegrown years, “We moms still cherish the memories and strong bonds we formed in those early years, with our children and with the other mamas — our tribe.”

Over the years, this grassroots preschool has expanded my own views on education, provided me with an invaluable support network, and saved me thousands of dollars in preschool tuition. It also gave me the encouragement I needed to reinvent my son’s kindergarten program to include outdoor Fridays and extended travel.

It’s interesting then, that such a vibrant group was once a mere afterthought. In 2010, when a group of homeschooling parents gathered to discuss elementary homeschooling issues, they realized the pitfalls and blessings of having younger siblings.  It was hard to have preschoolers who were just along for the ride all the time, without occasional activities designed to engage them. Not stopping to meet their needs meant tantrums, interruptions and more. There were so many ways preschoolers could benefit from things like field trips, age appropriate crafts with preschool peers and more. “It was an epiphany,” recalls Robin. “It was time to include the preschoolers in a more deliberate way.” Preschoolers were then brought to the forefront with the birth of Homegrown Preschool. “It really filled a need, as evidenced by the quick growth of the group to the strong attendance that we had from the beginning. We all delighted in creating schoolday activities for the children as well as organizing field trips and hikes.”

Original Homegrowner Jen Schilling notes, “Robin Allee has been our fearless leader.” Robin has led and advised the group since its inception, helping host a homeschooling presentation last year at Jen’s house, open to the whole community but especially Homegrowners.

In true Vineyard fashion, it seems everywhere we Homegrowners turn, we are welcome.

We were invited to tour the vault at Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank after my eldest son inquired at the drive-through one day, “Where do our deposits go?”

During a bleak February, the state-of-the-art Oak Bluffs library welcomed us in so the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival could put on an engaging children’s film workshop.

This adorable little group also gives back, crafting turkey centerpieces for the Tisbury Senior Center, making feeders as holiday gifts to the birds, and also hosting a bake sale benefiting Heifer International.

Being small presents its challenges. Turnout to events can drop dramatically when a few children have to stay home with colds or tantrums, or a couple of families have scheduling conflicts.

Parents are constantly reminded, though, that we need only a few simple activities and friends to keep the kids happy and everyone feeling inspired.

For more information or to sign up, please contact Moira Convey Silva at silva.mc@hotmail.com.