Help! a nature-based preschool in NJ of a colleague is being threatened to lose its license....for having trees and grass and mud and animals...
here is the original letter from the director:
"Hi, I am new to the group, but not to the concept or practice! It has been wonderful to read everyone's involvement and action on behalf of children. Rusty, I agree that we need to educate, but I may be losing my platform.
Just as all this knowledge is growing and returning to the lives of children, I worry that I will not have a center in short order.
I am the owner/director of a childcare center on an eleven acre farm in New Jersey. Our center has been a place for childhood for nearly half a century. Our children visit the barns, the woods, the stream and the meadow. We foster the children's opportunity to observe these locations through the seasons, over many years. Our grassy playground has numerous mature trees. Many have branches that are too high off the ground to touch, but the children's favorite has taken a nearly-weeping stance. Last fall, toddlers yanked the lowest delicate twiggy branches and danced and laughed as the leaves rained down. Older children were able to stand in the "cave" under the branches and believe they were hidden away.
This winter, our license renewal process brought a new inspector who has demanded that we cut all branches of all the trees to 7.5 feet above the ground "to protect children". When my stunned expressions of concern that doing so would leave me with a playground full of trunks, and such an action of was not a regulation, and about where we are going when we take the experience of touching and playing with trees away from children, our inspector's response was: "If I am a little kid, I go on playgrounds to play with my little friends. Trees are nice – I guess- to watch move in the wind, but I don't play with them: I never played with a tree."
This follows the removal of all rolling log segments, fallen trunks, etc, because all "climbing equipment" must be fixed to the ground and over safety surfacing.
I did explain our philosophy, did pull research about the importance of nature experiences in developing children's minds, did ask to be shown the specification that requires that kind of drastic measure. I was brushed off. I could find nothing to support the demand in either our licensing manual or the Public Playground Safety Handbook she told me I had also to follow, so I contacted the national technical office, who pointed out that it was only over playground equipment that branches had to be trimmed.
I respectfully passed that revelation on to the county safety inspector, brought on board to add his weight to second the seriousness of these violations, and was told that a low branch is a hazard and I will be in court in front of a judge if I refuse to comply. Over the past few weeks, as I have attempted to show that this was not the intent of the agencies involved, the ante has been raised by bringing in every possible inspection agency to cite us on numerous issues, many also either absent from published standards or vaguely open to interpretation.
The (fully-vetted) animals not in a cage or on leash should be "eliminated". The inspector smelled a smell, which we had already identified over a weekend as a small egg a child had stuffed in his boot for safe-keeping, and then forgotten. The egg was gone. The smell lingered for a half a day. We are on a farm. We have animals, including a docile cat who has slept in a basket in the office, comes when called and has created no incident in a decade. Another sleeps at times on a porch that serves only as a fire-exit and houses our mechanicals room. She continued to smell a smell when no one else, including other officials, could. She decided it must be the cat. I suggested she might just not be familiar with the smell of earth, since kids had been out, been to the barn, etc.
All of our enrolled children are parent-paid. Among the other choices for their children, including plenty of franchise-on-a-slab options, parents chose us for the very things for which we are being cited.
Our inspector's response, "I can't believe you are continuing this discussion. The decision has been made. This is not a parental choice. This is about whether you can keep a license." Our license is up for renewal and we are on a temporary until early February. The inspector has the option not to extend the temporary, inform "parents and public" "through the media" that we have been cited (and ordered to close) for having failed to protect children, remove hazards, maintain sanitary conditions,etc. The intention of intimidation is palpable, and the push-back is so vehement and glacial!
I will write letters, inform bosses, etc. We are jumping through hoops to demonstrate an interest in being the safest and best place for children - but the fact is, we are on a farm, including some wetlands, we have puddles and mud and animals and trees, and we want to continue to provide this for children.
I know we are not alone in this. If you or anyone know of some doors I should know to knock on in seeking support in Southern New Jersey, I would appreciate any help I can get. Parents are willing to stand for us, write letters, make calls also, and even attend court hearings, etc. but that won't be much use if we are closed or so changed that we cease to be any different from the rest that what we do, and parents sought, is gone.
Thank you, Sue"