San Clemente is home to one of Orange County’s few nature-based STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) schools. The students at The Gratitude Garden Preschool are inventing, building and experimenting with science in a non-toxic and nature-based environment. The Gratitude Garden is a magical and inspirational place. Each room is eco-friendly and beautifully designed, the teachers all have university degrees and credentials, and the students have animals to raise and plants to cultivate. There are chickens, reptiles, various birds, a bunny, fish, frogs and a service dog. There’s an abundant garden and a nature-based playground that includes painting stations, a sail boat and a large log cabin. It’s the perfect environment for administering an education that is exciting, and prepares children for bright futures.
The school was founded three years ago by Dr. Dustine Rey, an adjunct professor of education in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University, and her partner Chris Kuzcynski, a patent attorney. After searching for the right preschool for their daughter, they realized that a new model of early education needed to be developed and offered to other discerning parents. Their daughter Satya is the inspiration for the school. Dr. Rey said they were looking for something that “emphasized social and emotional components like compassion, gratitude, kindness and resilience…had STEM components, and allowed children to be outdoors.”
Gratitude Garden is the manifestation of that vision. The school includes programs for “Sprouts” (ages 2-3), Transitional Kindergarten (ages 4-5), and Kindergarten. The children spend half of each session indoors, and half outdoors (90 minutes out, 90 minutes in). “All the current research shows that children need to be outside way more,” Dr. Rey explained, later adding: “children have to be outdoors, in nature, to use their body and all of its energy before they really have the ability to sit, to listen, and to learn.”
The curriculum includes STEM, positive social and emotional development, artistic expression, mindfulness & yoga, community service and more. The children are learning beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic. They’re also learning how to code, how to grow food, how to raise chickens, how to recycle and why it’s important, how to articulate their emotions and resolve conflict, and how to access all that knowledge to solve problems. The Gratitude Garden Preschool is one of the few schools to begin teaching computer literacy and coding at age four.
“The educational community is preparing children of today for jobs that don’t exist yet. However, we know we will need scientists, strong and compassionate leaders, and a generation of people that know how to critically think,” said Dr. Rey.
The practice of gratitude is also a part of this impressive curriculum, and that is school director Kelly Eason’s favorite component. “It’s a really special school. It’s not just a great place for the children to learn and grow and develop, it’s a place where all of us grow together,” she says.
The kids are learning to have gratitude for the environment, their peers and their elders. They compost, create little waste, and they made a robot out of completely upcycled materials from their classroom for the OC STEM Fair. When hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year, the students decided to adopt a classroom of kids they didn’t even know. The teacher in Texas was able to send a wish list for her class, and the Gratitude Garden students raised money, bought wish list items, wrote thoughtful cards and shipped it all to Texas. These little altruists also spend a day every November (their grateful month) visiting with the elderly at San Clemente Villas. They bring cards and gifts, and the pleasure of their adorable company.
“Our students are given the opportunity to make an impact when challenges arise in the world,” says Dr. Rey. “They know that their voice, hands, and choices have meaning. It is at this age when children learn that they are capable and competent. It is our duty and joy to show them how to use such strengths.”
Parents of these kids have noted that their kids are more articulate, self-aware and well-mannered. Dr. Rey has noticed that they’ve become adept at problem solving, whether it be resolving a conflict on the playground or suggesting that we can create less pollution and waste by drinking fewer “juice boxes”.
In addition to having a stellar curriculum, the school exists on a gorgeous, whimsical landscape. The furniture is comfortable and stylish; they have Amazon Alexa in every room; there’s plenty of light spilling in; the sounds of birds chirping; and there’s a garden and two chicken coops next to the playground. Capri, the resident Australian Shepard, wanders around in search of scratches behind her ears. It’s designed like a home because Dr. Rey and her family wanted it to be their customers “home away from home.”
The Gratitude Garden family is planning for expansion as well. They’re seeking property for their new school: TESLA Country Day. TESLA (Technology, Engineering, Science, Language and Arts) is an acronym inspired by Dr. Rey’s science idol Nikola Tesla. It will be a TK through fifth grade school, meaning they’ll be able to continue to mold their students until the end of their elementary education.
“If you are a discerning parent, and you’re looking for a home away from home, a place that’s going to nurture your child, give them opportunities to express their creativity, but also have a strong academic foundation, then this school is it,” said Dr. Rey.