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"Muddy!"

Little Tree Huggers Pre-School Teaches Harmony With Nature and Inclusion

Article by Melinda Gipson

Photography by Melinda Gipson, George Johnson

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

“Muddy!” exclaims Olivia, one of a dozen Little Tree Huggers, as she revels in the squish of her boots along the gurgling creek. It’s a shout of pure joy in being in the outdoors with a full day of learning ahead that feels like playtime. 

The Mother Goose to all this revelry is Lia Johnson, a native Argentinian who spent her own formative years living between town and a farm where the outdoors and animals were a way of life and nothing was ever wasted. She says, “The parents know that here the children have the freedom, that getting dirty is part of being a kid – playing with mud, rolling on the grass, eating the snow....” Notice, she adds, “that even though it’s raining, nobody is complaining. We are outside, rain or shine.”

And, what an outside! The Little Tree Huggers pre-school, designed to impart a love of nature and of the outdoors as well as inclusion of others, is bounded by a Monarch Waystation, a creek, a pretend “castle” complete with dragon; a farmyard with a chicken coop and a turkey; llamas, ponies and goats; a tree house and fort and hay bales to climb on.

Kids happily move on to their chores which begin with shoveling poop out of the stalls and coop and making sure the animals are fed. “Inside” consists of a brilliantly colored classroom, music room, kitchen, nap room, and an outside finished barn where they can play music, paint or hold semi-annual presentations for their parents on all they’re learning. The curriculum includes music, art, language, letters and life cycles of plants, animals and insects – not to mention the basic art of living an eco-friendly lifestyle with as few disposables as possible.

Says Lia in a quieter moment, “My philosophy is for the children to connect to nature while learning. The academics are very important, but the connection with nature needs to flow with the academics so they learn outdoors. I think for us, it is to go back to the basics, to the beginning, the way you and I grew up. I didn’t need all the big fancy toys to play. We live in a society where that is getting lost.”

No toys come to school, though there are soft toys to cuddle at nap time with the home-made natural fiber blankets they sleep with. Everything is recycled or composted, and kids have been known to go home and sort through their parents’ trash to explain the difference between banana peels and plastic packaging. Collectively, what they learn impacts everyone involved.

“We think of ourselves as planting the seeds for the future because we work with little ones. Our work as educators is to infuse them with the idea of being involved with nature and planting their own vegetables, and watering and harvesting and taking home. That is a good way to live – to learn where things really come from and to value them.”

Being an example to others includes the Loudoun business community as well. Lia’s husband George will tell you about the geo-thermal and solar energy systems that collectively have brought the home’s energy costs to “as close to carbon neutral as is possible.” The school is a two-time first-place “Platinum” winner of the Loudoun Sustainable Business Excellence Award for Tenant and Home-Based Businesses, and George was among the founders of the Virginia Green Initiative.

Parents are over the moon about the education their kids are receiving and have pressed the Johnsons to try to find a way to grow. As a home-based business, 12 is the limit on students they can serve. The Johnsons are listening, but had to dip into their own retirement savings just to buy the 30-year-old farmhouse that is Little Tree Huggers’ current home. There’s nearby land to expand and George has incorporated a non-profit called the Little Tree Huggers Preschool in hopes that community partners can help raise money to buy it and build an adjacent school and sustainability education center.

Learn more about Lia’s education philosophy in our video at http://vimeo.com/LeesburgLifestyle, or visit the Johnsons during Virginia Green Initiative’s Earth Day event at Little Tree Huggers, 20583 Gleedsville Rd., Leesburg, April 25th from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

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