Welcome to Margaret’s Garden
Each month, we will bring you a picture of an early childhood program. With our debut issue, I am delighted to bring you a picture of Margaret’s Garden, tended by devoted caretaker, Danielle Epifani. Danielle works with children from 18 months to 9 years of age and has been doing this work for the past decade. Margaret’s Garden Early Childhood program is located in the hills of Berkeley, California and inspired by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Lifeways.
How did you come to Waldorf Education?
With the birth of my son I closed my business as an Antique dealer. Like many new mothers, I was looking for an authentic, spiritually inspiring way to begin our new life.
I first learned about Waldorf education in an infant yoga class, and upon seeing the little velour gnomes our yogi presented us with, went to town researching! They were so tender, magical, and spoke to a new world I seemed to have known somewhere in my subconscious and about which I wanted my son to know. After scouring the internet I came across kits and toy suppliers as far away as the Netherlands. Finally, I came to the Waldorf School in our local community. About 6 months later, we enrolled in Parent/Child classes where I was fortunate to meet and bond with a tremendous group of mothers with whom I felt I had been waiting my whole life to meet. Not long after, I began my relationship with the Bay Area Center For Waldorf Teacher Training with director Dorit Winter.
As a businesswoman, art historian and shopkeeper, I had been on a path of looking to make, and share connections with the past so as to understand myself better and to share this rich legacy from which we, as a world culture, might locate ourselves. With the birth of my son, a new spirit was born which shed light and brought breadth to a new dimension: that which was grounded not only in dense matter, but also in spirit and the future.
How did Margaret’s Garden come into being?
Margaret’s Garden was an idea that came as a request by a parent and friend. During my teacher training, I imagined the possibility of sharing our home with other children and families. At the urging of my friend, I decided to re-invent my career and thus our program was born.
Why Margaret’s Garden, what is the significance of the name?
I had always loved the care and expertise in which my mother tended our home, and while I had ambitions of medical school, curating, and becoming a professor, I longed to be a homemaker like my mother. With the opportunity of marriage and even more so, finding an ensouled home in which to start and raise a family, I was thrilled. My husband and I had both been searching for a special place where time stood still.
Our love of old things and traditions of days gone by lived strongly in the home we were blessed to have purchased. Margaret, an elderly widow had lived in our home previously for nearly fifty years and seemed to call to us. It was in essence an unspoken agreement that we would live in and love this home and maintain all of the gentle qualities that age brings. To this there was a feeling of hope for the future, the hope that a soon to be married couple might bring, and a place where life could be created.
In the old master bedroom covered in pink floral wallpaper still smelling of perfume I told Margaret that were this to be our home, we would indeed love and care for it. After fourteen offers from multiple contractors, architects and speculators, the home was ours. It was a place lost in time that sought to be recognized and respected for the experience and tenderness that ripe age presents. Often the home felt lonely, however with just the two of us, and I noticed how it came to life with friends and guests.
We learned that Sally, the person from whom we bought the house, was in fact the niece of Margaret. Sally grew up next door. In the garden, overgrown with ivy and falling white picket fences, was a passageway through which Sally would come to visit her aunt Margaret.
I imagined that Margaret enjoyed the company of this child and it reminded me of my own girlhood in which I would wander unannounced into my elderly neighbor’s garden to roller skate on her turquoise concrete pavement. Often she would look out her window, startled to see me there. For a young girl, there was no limit to the enchantment and wonder that glowing ‘pool’ invited on the other side of the chain link fence, lined by my mother’s roses and dahlias.
What do snapshots of your day with the children look like?
Our mornings begin with drop off and free play. I make play a priority and sometimes it takes a while for this to develop for the children. When I see rich play developing, I often hold off on activities, even circle, to give children this special time to bring about and explore what is alive within them and in the social organism.
We are always eager to eat however, and mealtime is when my work, and our work together, unites us at the table. Here we sit family style and renew our gratitude in community. In some ways, though our group this year is quite young (2-3 years old) the children very much partake in the joy and mood of our gathering. They respect the food we prepare, one another, and our time is about nourishing ourselves in the company of one another.
Following our meal, they are naturally eager to play outside: explore the garden, sandbox, or go on a neighborhood walk. I try to allow space in our day for the wonders of everyday life to unfold: pebbles that are part of a neighbor’s landscaping, plastic bottle caps, even nails left by construction workers. I try to let the children lead by seeing the world through their eyes.
Aspects that may not be beautiful or ideally Waldorf nonetheless can fill them with wonder and I resist the temptation to ‘substitute’. Entering into the world with them, beyond the carefully arranged walls of the home, garden and classroom, I get to experience wonder through the eyes of a child and walk alongside them confirming that the world is a good and beautiful place.
We return indoors for lunch, followed by lullabies and nap. Contrary to what some may think, the children greet this time joyfully, put on their sleeping caps, prepare their blankets and are nourished in the comfort of being together. During this time, I am able to pause and reflect with humility, on the trust placed in me, as an opportunity to renew my commitment to this work.
Children awake to singing, we use the bathroom, fold blankets, wash faces, brush hair and parents trickle in. Some afternoons we have a full group, sometimes there may be only one or two children. I particularly appreciate this aspect of our day as I observe a new social dynamic in the children. It is as if all of our morning’s work goes to ‘sleep’ and when they wake they relate to one another differently. They may return to play objects they explored in our morning together, mastering new ideas and concepts, or we may go out for a neighborhood walk. The afternoon often gives me time to bond with the children in a more relaxed way and seems to extend the time for transitions children are in need of in order for us to complete our work. In and out breaths are longer as they engage and come more fully into consciousness. Often we will open the door welcoming in the afternoon sun, sit on the porch and enjoy a snack together, arrange the children’s belongings to go home, or clean up dishes and complete festival projects. I appreciate the flexibility that working in this way provides, and the children over the years become part of the life that makes this a home.
On Fridays we meet parents and children in the woods near our home. Here we spend the morning outdoors hiking, visiting the farm animals and naturalists. The children dress in outdoor weather gear and we experience the change of seasons in the native landscape. The children engage with the animals, negotiate steep, and during the winter, muddy slopes, and build strong and robust bodies. During the summer I lead a larger group of mixed age children full time in this experience. In the words of Richard Louv: “We should not think of a child’s experience in nature as an extracurricular activity, It should be thought of as vital to children’s health and development.”
What do young children need most today?
I remember as a parent feeling restless with the daily constraints of rhythm: sleeping, eating, play, eating, sleeping, play…. What I’ve discovered as a teacher is that this rhythm helps to carry me too! We all seem to know when it’s time to transition, and we move gracefully and intuitively like birds towards that place which provides us the needed in and out breaths.
Often times I did not understand the need for my son to be physically active, outside, and with other children. I believe that we are not meant to parent alone, nor are our children meant to be solely with a parent at home. Much of their learning comes from observing and then imitating what they see, and holding them, and the world in a place of trust. And yet I also believe that children need time and space to be alone, even bored. During those moments, if children can learn to take initiative to do things on their own, with an adult nearby and doing purposeful work, the children will be strengthened and have access to deep inner resources. This balanced with time outside is what I believe children need most. Time to learn to be with oneself without a lot of ‘hovering’, social expectations and/or pressure to do, or be anything but simply what, and where they are, is rare today.
Recently I participated in an exercise around thinking. We were asked to imagine a problem we faced. One insight that came from the discussion was that many of the ‘problems’ were centered on what could or might happen in the future. It had me thinking that in my own situation I didn’t know what the weather would bring the next day, and as a result felt the need to change my schedule with parents for the following day to accommodate the change in weather. Naturally when the next morning came, the weather was beautiful. Our rhythm had become disrupted due to my concern about the future. As it was, it all worked out, but the experience made a strong impression on me. My intuitive sense for the children and how our day is structured, my trust in our process together was momentarily suspended. In the end we had a magnificent rainy day hike in which we were able to pick up a trail from my home instead of by car and it was a joy to be out in the woods with them.
This aspect has me thinking of a quote I once heard about how, when we are so preoccupied with who our children will become, we miss out on who they are. Observation and being in the moment has been key with me this year. It’s as if all the “how to’s”, and prescriptions of what to do fade into the background. Somehow trusting in the children and trusting that they trust me, we are generally able to move through most situations with relative ease. This of course would not be possible, I believe, without a set rhythm we can all count on.
Much of my time with the children is quiet, and doing time, with limited talking or instruction. As a result, I believe we are able to sense one another, moving together as a group, as a living social organism much more deeply. It is a testament to the ways in which young children ask us to integrate life’s forces, while at the same time our own bodily forces become strengthened by the work.
How can parents support this?
I come to parents from a place of partnership, offering a ‘home away from home’. I feel honored that they entrust these early years of their children’s experience to me, and that in turn, we create together, a rich and nourishing experience for all. As our modern lives have us living far away from our ‘extended families’, whether logistically, or simply in our feeling life, I believe we re-create this experience for each other and the children through the community of this work.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your work?
Hmm…. Maybe having the opportunity to return to a gentler, more tender way of experiencing time in the company of good people, both young and old.
Danielle Epifani graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History. She is an antique dealer, Waldorf Early Childhood Educator, and Lifeways trainee. She is the director and lead teacher of Margaret’s Garden, and offers her home program to children and their families, ages 18 mos-6 years of age. Each summer she offers a mixed age Kindergarten experience for children ages 2.5-9 years, which takes place full time outdoors in Tilden Park. She is mother to Armando, now almost 12, and has spent time both as a Waldorf and Public School parent. Her mother is from French Polynesia, and her childhood summers spent in Tahiti greatly influence her love and commitment to preserving nature. She has created an extensive Native Wildlife Habitat in her home garden located on a natural spring.
Interview with Lisa Boisvert Mackenzie.
Photographs by Danielle Epifani copyright@2011