LCC alumna Dovilė Urbanavičienė never attended kindergarten, but that did not keep her from establishing Miško darželis, a kindergarten where children sing songs around a fire, play in tepees, and enjoy childhood by exploring nature and experiencing personal freedom. In this setting, parents, teachers, and children become a community that shares similar values and beliefs.
I was born in Druskininkai where I went to a high school that was liberal for its time. I had an amazing and unusual high school experience because during our last year we were able to study at home and only be in school to take our completed homework to the teacher. This type of freedom taught us to be responsible. Then I attended LCC International University where my ideas were nurtured during my academic years. The idea for such an unusual kindergarten came to me after the birth of my son when I realized that I wanted to try out some of my ideas about preschool education. So, in discussion with my husband, we decided to start a summer camp where children could spend most of their time outdoors, freely running around and playing. They were encouraged to explore nature and have adventures alongside their teachers. Our first attempt was a success. Later we decided to open a full-time kindergarten and expand our efforts.
I was fearful there might be a negative response from the municipality as our approach to kindergarten was quite different from other kindergartens. However, when I approached the municipality asking for permission, my idea was supported. No regulations for private kindergartens existed so they could not legally restrict what we proposed. The most significant difference between our private kindergarten and public kindergartens is that our kids spend most of their time outside–exploring, playing, interacting in and with nature. We are now in the sixth month of the long process to be given official government status.
The process is fairly easy. Before parents agree to sign up their kids, we invite them to spend one day free of charge at the kindergarten with their child. This visit allows both the parents and the child to decide if they want this experience. Only after an initial visit in which everyone involved is satisfied do we sign the contract. One of the advantages of our kindergarten is the low teacher/student ratio. We currently have 40 children between the ages of 3 and 7 enrolled and 6 teachers hired with an approximate ratio of 6-7 kids per teacher. We have received a lot of positive feedback from parents. Most of them are amazed at how excited and happy their children are when they return home from kindergarten.
I believe in creating a personal connection with parents and kids. We meet with parents when they bring their children, but we also plan other group times. We have parties where children are not obliged to learn and recite poems standing in front of the group. Children have the freedom to choose what they want to show their friends and parents. They can sing or they can dance, but there is no specific program for how it must happen. During such gatherings parents also participate. The last time we got together for a small celebration, a musician parent brought his guitar and we all sat around the bonfire singing campfire songs. Even daily when parents bring their children over, I meet them at Smiltynė when the ferry comes so I can have a casual conversation with a parent over a cup of coffee while we wait. We intentionally build a community where all parents who bring their children to our kindergarten share our worldview.
There is a month of winter holidays and a month of summer holidays. Since we have enough teachers, we can offer different activities and options from which the children may choose. Some children go to the forest; others go to the sea. The activities offered depend on the weather, but they are outside during the day, so they dress warmly and we keep them busy. Parents always are given a list of things and what kind of clothing their child should have and will need. We post all the information on our website as well, so parents know beforehand what to expect.
They learn to be responsible for their belongings. They bring their own plates and after a meal, they pack everything into their backpacks. We have recycling bins in the area where we eat, so kids learn from an early age to sort their garbage and protect the environment. More importantly they learn that childhood is about freedom of choice and doing fun things like building tepees, going to the forest, and playing at the beach all day. They are happy to come to kindergarten every day and enjoy their time with friends and teachers.
Dovilė Urbanavičienė has started a kindergarten and is pioneering a new form of preschool education. Even though she is taking small steps, she is determined to expand and share her worldview with others.