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Finding the Right Preschool: Insights from Educator and Mixed Greens Director Heather Ashton Black

Preschool is a crucial part of your child’s early development, laying the foundation for lifelong learning and social skills. Choosing the right preschool is a big decision for any parent, as it significantly influences your child’s cognitive, emotional, and social growth. 

In this interview with Heather Ashton Black, Director of Mixed Greens Preschool, we explore various types of preschools in Sonoma County and discuss important considerations for finding the right one, from child-driven curriculums to risky play, social-emotional learning, and beyond. 

Here’s what she shared with us. 

SOMO Village: Could you share a bit about yourself and your role as Director of Mixed Greens Preschool? 

Heather Ashton Black: I’ve always wanted to be a preschool teacher. Ever since I went to preschool, I thought it was really fun, and I never wanted to leave!  That clarity of decision at such a young age made it really easy for me to follow my career path in education. 

My goal was always to work in Early Childhood Education, so I went straight from high school to college and graduated from the University of Central Florida. Then, I received my post-grad training in Early Childhood Administration from City College of San Francisco and UC Santa Cruz. 

My first teaching experience was in a public school kindergarten, which is where I thought I’d end up. In the very first year, though, I realized I was surrounded by jaded ladies who didn’t even seem to like kids or teaching that much. 

Nobody there was into my fun, excited, straight-out-of-college ideas. There just wasn’t space for teachers to be creative or meet the learning community. It was all a bureaucratic, trickle-down effect from people higher up somewhere who decided what was important due to where the money was coming from. 

That was kind of a hard pass for me. 

So, I did a lot of traveling and went to Reggio Emilia, Italy—a place that I had learned about during my Early Childhood Education studies. They have a really cool and inspiring model of community-based education. 

I ended up coming back to the Bay Area and got a teaching job at a rad school in Mill Valley, where I learned more about the Reggio Approach. 

There, I realized that education didn’t have to be this cookie-cutter, bureaucratic public school model that speaks more to politics than to learners.

All of our teachers there had a college education and enjoyed geeking out philosophically on ECE topics. The families and faculty all felt at home and inspired…it was clear we needed more schools like that.  I just wanted to work at cool schools (and for my children to attend awesome schools), but I couldn’t find many, so I made them instead!

That’s how I ended up as the Director of Mixed Greens Preschools. 

What are kids’ biggest challenges when transitioning to preschool for the first time, and how do you support them?

I think the hardest thing for the kids—and, honestly, it’s harder for the moms—is that they’re not the only baby in the show anymore. They’re now all sharing a spotlight. 

We make that transition easier for them by honoring the importance of that journey, reminding them of their big awesomeness, and helping them live up to that.

How does a preschool’s philosophy and curriculum properly support kids’ curiosity and cognitive development?

There are many different schools of thought, but we believe preschool should be play-based and child-driven so children’s inquiries are based on their interests. 

I found that teachers don’t get to pick the curriculum in public schools. But educated teachers know what people at certain developmental levels need to learn, whether it’s letter recognition, reading, numeration, measuring, and so much more. 

So, our approach is to figure out what the children are into and then formulate project work based on their interests. They’ll still be meeting all those milestones and learning what they need to learn, but doing it in a way that’s interesting to them so it sticks.

Having an inquiry-based, child-driven, play-based curriculum helps kids feel comfortable within themselves to be okay with exploring and figuring things out on their own. They own their own learning.

What measures do you take to ensure the safety and security of the children at the preschool? 

Any licensed center has to follow some basic rules. 

First, I would definitely make sure that the school or daycare you’re choosing is licensed. You can check online to see if they’ve had any licensing issues. 

Second, teachers should be certified in CPR and first aid. Technically, you only need to have one on-site, but we make sure all our teachers stay current.

Third, the preschool should have door locks and alarms. At Mixed Greens, we regularly practice fire, earthquake, and lockdown drills with the kids. 

Can you explain the concept of risky play and why it’s such an essential part of child development?

Safety is essential in preschools, but at Mixed Greens, we also believe in the value of “risky play.”

While it might seem a little counterintuitive to maintaining safety, a big part of our philosophy is that we allow the kids to learn their own limits and figure out how to navigate challenges safely. 

So, instead of bubble-wrapping everything around them, we traverse with them. 

For example, we take them on hikes where they might encounter brambles or bees and help them figure out how to make their way through it all. 

Of course, we make sure that the spaces are as safe as possible beforehand, but we want the “little humans” to do everything they want—to climb to all the high places and figure the journey out as they go.

Sadly, many schools now don’t even have swings because they might present hazards, so children miss out on these fun ways to strengthen their vestibular and proprioceptive senses; but experiencing these things are how kids learn and grow, body and mind.

We support and empower them in learning the “how” of navigating challenges, taking ownership of their safety, and figuring out how to assess and avoid risks in general.

This helps them build skills for life. 

What should parents look for when seeking a preschool for their kids? 

First and foremost, the preschool’s philosophy and beliefs should be aligned with your home culture and vibe. A lot of schools take a cookie-cutter “one size fits all” approach and use a standardized curriculum. 

As a parent, that might work for you, or it might not. The idea of your child sitting down and tracing worksheets may not be right for you.

My advice is to visit the preschool and get a sense of the teachers and the philosophy.

One big thing to consider is whether it feels homey. A lot of times, kids spend more waking hours with us than they do at home.  Would you want to spend your days there?

A lot of places feel more institutional, and from my perspective, it’s important that the school is a really welcoming place that feels like a second home and prioritizes wonder.

Ultimately, the preschool you choose will begin to shape your child’s view of the world. 

I’d also recommend making sure it’s a place where you, as a parent, feel at home. At Mixed Greens, we ensure grownups feel welcome here, and we create opportunities for them to hang out. 

We’re called Mixed Greens because we’re mixed-age and green-certified. We try to encompass all ages, from grownups to babies. We even have grandparents who volunteer here. 

Beyond that, it’s worth considering the preschool’s hours, location, and pricing. 

What are the main differences between private and public preschools? 

Today, the state is starting to push for more Transitional Kindergarten—also known as TK—which acts like a bridge between preschool and kindergarten.

In theory, free schooling sounds great, but one of the challenges is that it’s pushing younger and younger children into large elementary schools. 

Many of the families that we’ve had who made the choice to go to TK ended up wishing they could come back.

For one, TK doesn’t offer the hours that working families tend to need. They tend to be a shorter day. On the other hand, preschools like Mixed Greens often offer hours that align more with the needs of parents. We’re open from 7:30 am to 6 pm for working families who need the full day.

Of course, elementary schools may have after-school care programs. In addition to being very hard to get a spot in these limited arrangements, these programs are often run by a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club type organization, not a licensed childcare provider. These larger public school settings are really not developmentally appropriate for little humans.

What are the ideal outcomes for kids in preschool?

I think social-emotional learning is at the forefront and the undercurrent of everything in Early Childhood Education. If kids are feeling comfortable within themselves and within their world, then they’re going to learn all the academic things naturally.

We’re hardwired to learn. That’s how we grow and do all the things.

Mr. Rogers had the best quote ever about this social-emotional facet:

“What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right? What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong and be able to do something else instead and think of this song: I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish, can stop, stop, stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this, knowing that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can.”

I’m always really proud to hear from kindergarten teachers who know that a Mixed Greens kid has joined their class because the kid will say something like, “I need space,” or “Let’s talk about this.” 

It’s essential for them to be able to recognize when something is not for them or they’re not interested, as well as be comfortable with asking questions.

We hope for our children to be able to live healthfully on this Earth, create beautiful things, and just be good people. 

What’s the most rewarding part of leading the preschool? 

The most rewarding part is the community that we’ve been able to build. It’s such an honor and a blessing. We have such a tight community of people that really stays strong, even beyond the preschool age years. 

It’s fulfilling because I get to choose these awesome people to work with and help raise these amazing kids with.

Also, we have the freedom and flexibility to create the curriculum for what feels right and important to us as the teachers and the families, which is something that you can’t do if you’re one of these larger franchise operations or TK.

If you’d like to learn more about Mixed Greens Preschool, you can visit them online or contact them directly

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