Farmtime Preschool is in its first year of operation but the woman behind educating at the school has decades of experience with early childhood development and classroom teaching. “If you do what you love you don’t work a day in your life. I believe that. I am proof that it is possible.“ explains Rhonda Delnick. After visiting Farmtime Preschool it’s clear she’s in love and not working at all.
The State of Education
Continued changes in public schools regarding the best way to teach children, what they should know, and how they should learn are handed down by the government. But many teachers in public schools question these methods and lack of choice when it comes to how an individual child learns or is taught. Educators are often looked at as the only means for learning but the time kids spend in the classroom is not the only opportunity to learn. Children and adults are able to learn at any given time if they’re interested.
When Delnick first started working in the Lowell Area School District 17 years ago she was asked to help spearhead an early childhood education program. After working with local families it was determined the community needed a preschool option. From that Curiosity Corner Preschool and Tots on Track for School (TOTS) was born. Both programs still exist with nearly 200 students participating in a school environment or educational class geared toward children up to kindergarten. But much has changed in the world of education in the last decade.
Teachers, parents, and even students complain about testing. Is a standard test the best way to educate and evaluate kids and now teachers? Many, like Rhonda Delnick, believe having an experience results in the best way to reach children. Over the past few years she has tried to resist academic changes but due to educational mandate there’s little to no choice in the way in which teachers offer guidance in the classroom. Delnick states, “Everyone is scrambling to find bigger and better ways to hold a child’s attention. New tests and graphs to be used on a daily basis with the children not just to track a child’s ability to remember information, but to track the teacher’s ability to force feed knowledge deemed important by experts upon these children. Instead of a child pursuing knowledge, we have become knowledge pursuing children.”
Rhonda decided last spring to retire from Curiosity Corner Preschool, at the time a preschool teacher for four year olds, and pursue her dream of having a school on her farm. Leaving behind a program she helped establish and is proud of made for a difficult decision to step away. Upon the completion of the preschool year in late May Rhonda worked through the summer setting up her new school. Lyndsey Graham has a daughter in one of the sessions. “She transformed her house into the best school setting possible.” she comments.
Within an hour of announcing open enrollment for new students all four class sessions were full with additional names on a waiting list. Four year olds gather twice a week for three hours each day in a class of no more than six children. “This allows me valuable time everyday to spend one on one with each student, giving me great insight into skills we can work on, and areas where they excel, allowing me to customize each child’s learning.” explains Rhonda of the small class size.
Numerous reasons for families to send their children to be in Miss Rhonda’s class can be found. Laura Weston lists the following things her son is experiencing in class, “How to be a part of something bigger. How every living thing deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. How to work with others to make something a success.” Many of the students enrolled are younger siblings of those who have had Miss Rhonda as a teacher in the past.
What sets Farmtime Preschool apart from traditional pre-k schools is the classroom. There is not one room where the class stays at all times. The beginning of the day is spent in an exploration room of sorts. Kids keep their belongings in this room which contains items used for interaction and change depending on the season or topic of learning. Leading up to Thanksgiving, turkey feathers lined a table. Various rocks, tree trunk pieces, and other items found in nature are placed around the room to be touched, played with, and explored.
The first part of the day is spent in this room playing or working on a project. In keeping with the Thanksgiving theme students were making a turkey call the week before the holiday. It wasn’t just to see what a turkey sounded like. There are turkeys on the farm which the kids have seen and heard. The experience to be had was to see what a male turkey would do if he heard the call of a potential rival on his turf. Rhonda asked and explained to the class what would happen when they made their turkey call sounds. Then it was time to put the hypothesis to the test. Students observed the calls, raised feathers, and change in facial color when a turkey felt threatened.
Next on the day’s activities was feeding and checking in on the animals. There are chores to be done. Each student helps feed the chickens, pigs, goats, horses, and more. They learn how to work together as a team to accomplish a common goal. They observe changes since their last visit with the animals. And they’ve had experience tending to wounds, searching for lost babies, corralling escaped pigs, and mending fences. Turkeys and chickens even get a special treat of popcorn! The animals react to the students as if they’re old friends coming for a visit. Classes will experience having responsibilities in spite of the season and weather.
Parents are aware their children will be around potentially unpredictable farm animals, traversing over uneven ground, and getting dirty. Students and parents alike look forward to going to school with the opportunity to learn by doing in nature without the use of technology. “She is learning responsibility through caring for and feeding the animals, developing a deeper love and appreciation for nature, minimizing her fear of creatures/insects and is learning the academics component without using technology. Given today’s technology focused society I am glad that Miss Rhonda brings it back to the basics of learning through nature and exploration.” says Bree Stinson, who like many parents, appreciates Rhonda’s back to the basics philosophy.
After chores are complete there’s a sense of satisfaction with the class. They’ve accomplished something. Together. They’ve had an experience and learned things without being taught anything in the sense of memorizing knowledge in order to take a test. The class heads to the barn for some more play. They experience gross and fine motor skills playing in a corn table, using a rope swing, climbing bales of hay, and simply running around exploring.
Once the wiggles have been mostly exasperated it’s time to refuel. While sitting around an elevated island in Rhonda’s kitchen the kids chat about whatever comes to mind with their teacher joining the conversation. The day finishes in a room which is set up more like a traditional preschool classroom.
But it’s still not typical. There are no computers, iPads, or other technology to aid in teaching. The class reviews the day of the week, date, and month. It’s during this classroom time they practice letters and numbers. They get the academic foundation needed to be prepared for kindergarten. “She wakes up every morning hoping that it is a school day! She loves being able to help with the animals and all of the hands-on learning that Rhonda offers.” explains Amy Boston whose daughter attends Farmtime Preschool.
There is no time limit on when an activity should start and end. If there’s a discovery while feeding the animal it’s investigated. If the class is enjoying a particular part of the day it isn’t cut short. Structure exists but it is flexible.
In order for Farmtime Preschool to work for a student and his or her family, Rhonda’s philosophies on education should be shared on some level. An understanding that learning with a focus on nature is fundamental should be embraced by parents. “My daughter has a natural curiosity and love of learning, but I have really seen that intensify this year. It is obvious to me that she is exploring her full potential. I am amazed at how much information she retains, even weeks later, and how excited she is to tell me about new things they’ve discussed. I also believe that it is easier for young children to learn abstract concepts about how our world works when they are within the environment they are learning about.” says Kara Hoholik of one of Rhonda’s students.
Students will continue on to a public or private school where it’s unlikely this class size or method of teaching is upheld. But parents on board find starting a school experience in this environment is the best groundwork when heading into a more traditional school setting. The hope and expectation is such that a child will learn to appreciate nature, responsibility, working on a team, and learning through doing which will be carried on through the end of schooling into adulthood. There’s a sense of peace in the classroom which can be carried on in future interactions in the world such as learning at school, playing with neighborhood kids, observing nature, being part of a family, and becoming a contributing member to society regardless of age.
Miss Rhonda’s Farmtime Preschool is currently full. Spots are starting to fill up for next year. Names are being placed on a list to be contacted in the spring for enrollment in the 2017/18 school year if unable to commit at this time. Tuition listed on their website is $195/month with an additional $50 non-refundable registration/supply fee. Visit the Farmtime Preschool online for additional information about this educational experience and how to contact Rhonda with questions.