‘A new place to explore’

Featherstone welcomes Garden Gate Child Development Center to its new home.


For more than two decades, Garden Gate Childhood Development Center and Featherstone Center for the Arts have been working together to encourage creativity, exploration, and thoughtful expression in Island kids.

Now, the two organizations have solidified their long-cherished partnership, as Garden Gate relocates to the Featherstone campus to continue with their mission of allowing children to lead the way in their educational experience early on in life.

Apart from the sprawling property of grazing fields filled with animals and walking trails snaking through vast expanses of conservation land, the interior spaces of Featherstone also provide kids with some essential learning tools. Educators at Garden Gate treat classrooms as studios for creativity, and the new learning spaces at Featherstone certainly qualify.

The Times got to experience the new classroom spaces firsthand during an open house held by Garden Gate last week, and spoke with a number of teachers who will be working there.

“I think we are very lucky to have Featherstone. It feels like this space is just meant to have children in it,” Garden Gate lead teacher Delia Gibson said of the Featherstone Farmhouse, which the child center has named Studio 2. Gibson added that the inside of Studio 2 is open and airy, with lots of opportunity for activities like painting, sculpture, crafts, and more. She also said the space feels warm and inviting, and dodges the sometimes institutional look of conventional classrooms. Studio 1, known by Featherstone as the Pebble building, will serve as a classroom for toddlers 1½ to 3½ years old. Studio 2 will house the older students in preschool and kindergarten, ages 3½ to 6.

Josie Black, a Garden Gate parent and member of the childhood center’s board of directors, said she is “absolutely ecstatic” about the next level of collaboration between the two organizations, and feels like it brings the art and creativity-based elements of Garden Gate to a place where opportunities for creative expression are literally everywhere. “Having this campus as a resource is so amazing for the kids — my son loves to be outside, he loves to explore, he would spend hours outside just going around and having new experiences,” Black said.

Particularly coming out of COVID, Black said, it’s important for kids to have trusted and experienced educators who will give them chances to grow not just academically, but emotionally and creatively, as well. She said one of the most impressive things about Garden Gate is the teachers’ enthusiasm and ability to form strong and supportive connections with each individual child. “The teachers have taken the time to know everything about my son, and to really understand him and celebrate him as a person,” Black said. “It is beyond words how much time they put into my son and his happiness and well-being.”

Leigh Ann Yuen, co-founder and director of Garden Gate, said the entire staff is pinching themselves about the partnership, and everyone is excited to start a new chapter in education. “It feels like we were just always meant to be here. It feels like we were always here,” Yuen said.

According to Yuen, both the learning studios will act as temporary spaces while Featherstone works on a campus-wide master plan that includes alterations or additions to existing buildings. There is no definitive plan for a new Garden Gate building on the Featherstone campus, although Yuen said that process is still being worked out. “This really represents the first phase of a multistep process that will result in a permanent, long-term education space for us,” Yuen said.

As kids become more accustomed to the new classrooms, they will slowly start to gain more and more ownership over the space, which Yuen said builds confidence and allows kids to more freely follow their own interests. For Garden Gate, every area can be used for creative art, creative construction, creative drama — pretty much anything that has to do with kids finding their strengths, weaknesses, and passions through inventiveness and individuality. “One of the things that differentiates us from other kinds of childhood programs is we don’t teach children what to learn, we teach them how to learn. We are giving them the tools they need to explore and form their own relationship with the world,” Yuen said.

For Yuen, one of the biggest draws of the Featherstone campus is the expansive conservation lands and enriching outdoor activities that are made possible by the surrounding wilderness. After the pandemic, when so many kids were cooped up inside taking classes on Zoom and doing homework assignments online, Yuen said it was paramount for Garden Gate to provide as many active play experiences as possible.
“We really wanted to start nurturing and healing all the trauma that kids have endured,” Yuen said. “There is a quote that says, ‘Kids don’t bounce off the walls if you take away the walls.’ We have seen specific behaviors where kids would be kind of rough-and-tumble in the classroom, then you take them outside and they still are playing, but they have enough space to play freely and not interrupt anyone else’s learning time.”

Co-director and lead teacher Dawn Warner said Garden Gate is all about meaningful learning — the kind of education that is important to kids. Often, in a more traditional setting, kids have fewer sources of inspiration and motivation. Similarly, if a child isn’t inspired by or interested in a certain topic, they most likely won’t take to it as well. “When we fill every lesson with meaning, it sticks with the kids a lot more,” Warner said. “And this space will be a new place to explore that is very carefully curated to be calming, but also inspiring and highly conducive to learning.”

Garden Gate has purposefully overstaffed their classrooms this year. Studio 2 (for older kids) has 14 students enrolled, and three teachers. This means kids will receive more individualized education and direct attention from teachers. “If one student wants to do some painting, someone else wants to pretend to bake a cake, and another kid wants to learn how to work with clay, we have plenty of adults to facilitate all those activities,” Warner explained.

For executive director of Featherstone Ann Smith, bringing Garden Gate operations to the campus is the culmination of many years of close collaboration, and a natural match for both organizations. “We have hosted them for various exhibits and kids’ programs in almost every building on the campus at some point,” Smith said.

Right before COVID, in the summer of 2019, Featherstone hosted the Garden Gate 20th anniversary event and its graduation ceremony. Once the pandemic hit, capacity restrictions for classrooms forced the child center to look for alternative spaces. Yuen and Warner reached out to Smith about bringing the Garden Gate 3- to 5-year-old program to Featherstone, and they’ve been on the campus ever since. “We feel like we have a winning combination in terms of lifelong learning, arts education, and creative expression,” Smith said.

According to Smith, Garden Gate has always managed to integrate art galleries and exhibits into their curriculum, such as the “Art of Flowers” exhibit, and the current William Blakesley exhibit. Smith said when you incorporate the arts into learning and growth, it provides young students with the tools to interact with the world in an analytic and creative way. “This relationship is mutually beneficial, and we can’t wait for that connection to continue on into the future, and see all the wonderful things that Garden Gate has to offer,” she said.

Garden Gate is located on the Featherstone campus, at 30 Featherstone Lane, Oak Bluffs. Head to gardengatemv.org for more information, or to enroll your child in an educational program.