For­est nurs­ery Manchán Ma­gan vis­its Brigit’s Hearth in Co Clare, where preschool­ers learn from na­ture

At Brigit’s Hearth in Clare preschool­ers learn from na­ture, writes Manchán Ma­gan

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Apre- school in an eco- build­ing on the edge of a na­tive wood­land in Co Clare sounds a lit­tle like a fairy­tale. Yet, that is pre­cisely what Brigit’s Hearth in Tuam­graney, near Scarr if f , is : a clay- walled early learn­ing cen­tre within the root- range of the an­cient Brian Boru oak.

As a Gov­ern­ment- funded com­mu­nity project, this Wal­dorf ( Steiner) school is a model of what could be repli­cated through­out Ire­land – where the ar­rivals hall for new ba­bies is within an acorn’s drop of the de­par­ture lounge of a neigh­bour­ing nurs­ing home, in an area of pro­found eco­log­i­cal rich­ness.

That such a place ex­ists is down to a vi­brant Spa­niard named Lina Pe­laez who was in­volved with the Steiner pri­mary school in Tuam­graney where she re­alised that the chil­dren ar­riv­ing at its kinder­garten at age four were al­ready set in their ways. “We know that the first three years of life are the most im­por­tant,” says Pe­laez.

So, she and a Dan­ish friend set up a pi­lot project to care for chil­dren up to three years of age, without any funds or back­ing.

“We were given a room in a large farm­house in re­turn for help­ing with their laun­dry. We had an old or­chard to play in and a big draw­ing room with a wood burn­ing stove. The chil­dren loved play­ing with the laun­dry – get­ting in­side the bas­kets, pulling things in and out.”

Pe­laez re­called how Steiner, an Aus­trian who for­mu­lated the phi­los­o­phy un­der­pin­ning the schools, stressed the im­por­tance of do­mes­tic ac­tiv­i­ties in the de­vel­op­ment of chil­dren. They called the project Brigit’s Gar­den and it con­tin­ued for a few years, “un­til even­tu­ally I re­alised we couldn’t con­tinue do­ing this without per­ma­nent premises”.

This was in 2007 when the gov­ern­ment was flush and was of­fer­ing gen­er­ous cap­i­tal fund­ing for com­mu­nity projects.

“We ap­plied and got close to ¤ 700,000, which was a to­tal shock as I was pack­ing to go back to Spain for good. I knew that if we were to build it, it would have to be with the same vi­sion as we were do­ing our work with the chil­dren, and that get­ting plan­ning per­mis­sion for such a build­ing would be a chal­lenge.”

Pe­laez spot­ted a three- acre field on the edge of Ra­heen Woods right be­side the lo­cal nurs­ing home and com­mu­nity hos­pi­tal. “I knew the area well from vis­it­ing the Brian Boru oak which is prob­a­bly 1,500 years old and I thought this was the ideal place. We kind of had to do it here.”

She met Brian O’Brien of Solearth Ar­chi­tec­ture and ex­plained how she wanted to unite lo­cal tra­di­tions with en­vi­ron­men­tal build­ing so­lu­tions. “I had draw­ings of all these aban­doned home­steads and thatch cot­tages that I had seen around.”

Clare County Coun­cil’s plan­ning of­fi­cers were un­der­stand­ably hes­i­tant: “Not a hope, they said. Their vi­sion of a crèche was not an ar­che­typal ru­ral home­stead.”

The fact that the cen­tre would be in the coun­try­side was a par­tic­u­lar hur­dle, but Pe­laez ex­plained the im­por­tance of chil­dren ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the chang­ing sea­sons and walk­ing on un­even nat­u­ral ter­rain, and how im­por­tant it was to have free play out­doors and a healthy home- like en­vi­ron­ment.

“We showed them pho­tos of our chil­dren play­ing out­doors and ex­plained how the ex­pe­ri­ence of good­ness and beauty will stay with them for­ever. Even if they come from an un­der­priv­i­leged back­ground they will search for these qual­i­ties in their later lives.”

In the end, plan­ning per­mis­sion was ap­proved and over three years, Pe­laez and her col­league Veron­ica Crom­bie su­per- vised the con­struc­tion of the clay- blocked build­ings with waxed wooden floors, sil­i­cone- free plas­ter, so­lar pan­els and bi­o­log­i­cal paints.

The aim was to be as home- like and “un- in­sti­tu­tional” as pos­si­ble, with a large kitchen for pre­par­ing or­ganic whole­some meals and a wood burn­ing stove sur­rounded by quiet rooms, play­rooms and an en­closed court­yard with a sand­pit.

“We dec­o­rated with nat­u­ral Ir­ish things – prints by Ir­ish artists, hand- loomed blan­kets and pieces by lo­cal crafts­men so that the chil­dren are sur­rounded by their na­tive cul­ture.”

By the end, Pe­laez was ex­hausted and pen­ni­less and to lift her spir­its a friend bought her a ticket to a con­cert in Feakle by lo­cal hero, Martin Hayes.

She sum­moned the courage to ask him would he con­sider play­ing at the open­ing of the build­ing and though he was busy putting his fid­dle away, he told her to email him about it.

“Back then I was a bit like Snow White with my lit­tle ones around me walk­ing in

the woods with all the birds twit­ter­ing and the leaves fall­ing. My friends would say, ‘ You’ll never meet any­one here, you’re too soli­tary. You need to get out more. And I thought ‘ No,’ I’ll stay here where some prince will have to come and find me. When I saw Martin com­ing up the path a few weeks later it felt like the prince had ar­rived.”

Hayes played at the open­ing and a few months later phoned Pe­laez from Amer­ica to ask her to marry him.

“But, I don’t know you,” she said. “Well, do you know my mu­sic?” he r eplied, “That’s who I am.” They now di­vide their time be­tween Madrid, Clare and tour­ing the world with one of Hayes’s mu­si­cal com­mit­ments, the Gloam­ing, the con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish mu­sic group.

The cen­tre, named Brigit’s Hearth, is thriv­ing. There is noth­ing else quite like it in Ire­land. The chil­dren spend two to three hours ev­ery day in the woods. “We say to the par­ents that there is no bad weather if you have the right gear. They com­mit to spend­ing money on good silk and wool un­der­wear, boots and woollen socks. We all sit on rugs and help each other put our boots and coats on be­cause this fra­ter­nal re­la­tion­ship is the foun­da­tion of a healthy so­cial life. Once they are out­side they are free to make their own de­ci­sions, whether to climb a tree or just sit on the roots. We just guide them to re­spect na­ture and its crea­tures, by ex­am­ple.” Brigit’s Hearth is a model of what early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion could be in Ire­land. It has non­profit char­ity sta­tus, as Pe­laez be­lieves that “car­ing for young chil­dren can never be a busi­ness and when it is, the chil­dren are pay­ing for it”. The chil­dren are in mixed age groups so they get to ex­pe­ri­ence the rich­ness of that in­ter­ac­tion and can learn from each other.

In­stead of plas­tic toys they have hand­made dolls, seashells and a few wooden toys that have been passed down over 20 years, with the hand­prints of more than 400 chil­dren on them. “We clean and wax them, and they get used again and again.”

While Pe­laez’s vi­sion was key to the de­vel­op­ment of Brigit’s Hearth, its suc­cess she in­sists is “down to the per­se­ver­ance, de­vo­tion and gen­eros­ity of the car­ers who worked over 20 years for next to noth­ing, and the par­ents who showed such com­mit­ment in search­ing out a new al­ter­na­tive for their chil­dren”.

Ul­ti­mately, the hope is that cen­tres such as this can pro­duce a new gen­er­a­tion of strong, imag­i­na­tive youths who will de­mand a holis­tic form of early ed­u­ca­tion, one that im­merses young peo­ple in their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings and leaves them with vi­sion, hope and courage.

Brigit’s Hearth near Ra­heen Woods in East Clare. “Once they are out­side they are free to make their own de­ci­sions, whether to climb a tree or just sit on the roots.” Pho­to­graph: Ea­mon Ward

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