Four decades of pint-sized patrons

Bainbridge Cooperative Nursery School celebrates 40 years in operation.

Adults know they’re on kid turf.

As one stoops to pass beneath the child-size bamboo arch that marks the gate of Bainbridge Cooperative Nursery School – the island’s oldest preschool, which celebrates its 40th anniversary May 13 – one enters a play-and-learn paradise.

The yard might make even the grumpiest grownup long to shed a few decades and clamber aboard the beached sailboat dubbed “The Creamsicle” or scale the small cliff of old tires.

Inside the capacious one-room schoolhouse at the end of Cave Avenue in Winslow, 21 preschoolers engage in activities that range from designing batik with melted crayons to impromptu dress-up.

In one corner, Timo Lahtinen pulls a blue suit jacket from a scaled-down closet and pushes his arms into the sleeves.

“I’ve got to go to work,” the 5-year-old announces, sitting at a desk with great aplomb. “I’m a firefighter and this is my office.”

Nearby, four children draw intently, while director and head teacher Judi Neumann kneels to see one of the works.

“Is this the road you were working on with your dad?” she asks one boy. “Were you doing more digging?”

Many of the pursuits – like the impromptu performance by a cast of three on a stage created from a pint-sized bed, of the song “You Are My Sunshine” – appear to have been initiated by the children.

But what could dissolve into chaos remains, gently guided by parent volunteers and teachers, purposeful play. BCNS educators know what they’re doing, and they should; several have been at the school for two decades, while the school has educated three generations of long-time island families like the Nakatas.

BCNS was founded in 1963 by parents who convinced retired University of Washington professor Denise Farwell to join them as the school’s first teacher.

The school opened in a garage and moved to a Wing Point home, but by 1974, the Cave Avenue site had been donated by a longtime island family, and a building campaign was under way.

The school became a nonprofit organization run by a board of parents, a structure that continues to this day.

Parents buy equipment and maintain buildings and grounds. BCNS receives some funding from Bainbridge Foundation and United Way, but is not under an umbrella organization such as a church.

The program emphasizes social development and learning through guided play, the gestalt theory developed by psychologists Jean Piaget and Erik Ericksen and, more recently, the notion of varieties of intelligence fostered by Howard Gardner and Bev Bos.

But the school has always focused more on children’s exploration than an overarching philosophy, Neumann says; BCNS provides the materials, but the children bring their individual experiences, moving through developmental stages largely through art and the natural development of that artwork from scribbles to refined pictorial rendering

“Children need to do 5,000 scribbles to get to aggregates of shapes,” Neumann said, “and everything needs to be working – small motor skills, visual acuity, use of materials.”

Today, Neumann and three teachers – administrative director Carol Stover and assistants Margie Storch and Mary Ferm – work with one class of 3- and 4-year-olds and a second class of 5-year-olds, about 40 children in all.

Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C., the school typically has a waiting list as long as five years, with some children listed as newborns.

For the 800 island families whose children have attended, the many who have sent several generations to BCNS, and for returning teachers like Joan Clough, Carolyn Maloney and Annette Radtke, whose grandson now attends, the May 13 event will be a reunion.

For the contemporary teacher team, the event marks a 20th year together.

“We are family,” Neumann said. “I think this school has survived because we draw in both parents and children.”

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