'Love is coming to you': Outdoor learning with Zoe

David Briggs
At Little Sparrows, a new preschool program in Point Reyes Station, kids learn the art of conversation—and get wet—under Zoe Crowhurst's wing.  

For Zoe Crowhurst, the pandemic was a catalyst to meet one of her life’s aspirations: opening her own preschool. Since September, a small cohort of youngsters has been participating in her entirely outdoor education program, Little Sparrows, in downtown Point Reyes Station.  

The program takes place in her backyard and in the Giacomini Wetlands, and provides ample adventure opportunities for her students, who range in ages from 2 to 5. She pulls her teaching model from philosophies such as Montessori and Waldorf, while clear boundaries, positive reinforcement and empowerment are at the core of her approach.

“Zoe is incredibly warm: We just loved her from the minute we met her,” said Barbara Mitchell, whose two children are in the program. “She has calm, good energy: I don’t know how anybody has nine kids under the age of 5 and stays calm like that, but she genuinely seems to enjoy it. She balances this with direct instruction, and does not let them run amuck. They really listen to her.”

Zoe previously taught at Huckleberry Garden in Inverness, an institution she attended when she was young, though it had a different name back then. When the first shelter-in-place order came down last March, Huckleberry could no longer serve as many students and the director helped Zoe establish her own program. 

Education is a second career for Zoe, who grew up in West Marin and went to high school at the San Francisco High School of the Arts and then to college at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She ended a nearly decade-long career editing and directing documentary films to raise her family.  

The new business has provided key support during the pandemic, especially at the start when her husband’s construction opportunities were slim. The work allows her to be available for her own two children—Colton, 11, and Emmylou, 9—when they come home from school.  

There were start-up costs associated with the new business, such as setting up the outdoor space, purchasing art supplies and establishing safety protocols. Her families pay tuition monthly, by semester or yearly.

After their day outdoors, kids at Little Sparrows return home tired, happy and filthy, according to their parents. “There are so many days that are the best day ever,” said Stinson Beach resident Sara Langer. “There’s a lot of laundry, but that doesn’t bother me. I would so rather that [my son] get that experience of being outside and doing all of that. It’s just that type of education and experience he needs.”  

Marianne Recher, a parent from Inverness, said Zoe is a proactive and skilled communicator; though parents do not visit her home, they regularly receive videos, photographs and updates on their children’s activities. “Zoe was born to do this,” Marianne said.

If you attend Little Sparrows, your morning proceeds as follows. After a temperature check and some hand sanitizer, students load their packs—which include wool clothes and rain gear—in their cubbies, play for a moment in the yard before a potty break—which utilizes tiny potties lined with disposable bags at one side of the yard—and then participate in another hand-washing session. “It’s very fancy, very bubbly,” Zoe said. 

Then, students go to the nest, a covered outdoor space Zoe’s husband, David Leslie, built for circle time. The wooden structure has a clear awning that provides a view to the sky; a wool rug, indoor-outdoor pillows, and hay bales adorn the inside. Students take three breaths. They sing the alma mater. 

Here are the words, which Zoe wrote: “Love is coming coming coming to you you you/ that’s how life works/ that’s how life works/ today is a gift today is a gift/ earth and air and sun and sea/today is a gift from me/ today is a gift/ today is a gift/ red orange yellow green and blue/ today is a gift for you/ I am strong/ I am wise/ I am brave and I am kind/ I work hard/ and I stick to it/ I have ideas/ and I can do it/ I am a friend/ to all I see/ I take good care/ of you and me.”

Snack follows. Zoe then asks, “Does anyone have anything to share?” She encourages the art of good conversation: active listening, relevant questions, taking turns. There is then a lesson on numbers, letters or colors. The last part of circle time is for planning the rest of the day. The group takes a field trip to the wetlands or works on a yard project. 

Recently, as part of a color unit, they made rainbow spaghetti. “We spent a lot of time feeling it, dying it, mixing it and shaking it. We talked about the different colors and how they made us feel. If purple was a friend, what type of friend would purple be?” Zoe described. Everyone had spaghetti to take home, though, following the lead of the students, some noodles were planted in the front yard in mud pits to feed the worms. “That was an extravaganza,” she added.

Boundaries have always come naturally to her, making working with youngsters—with the help of one part-time assistant—feasible. “If I’m telling someone to stop doing something, it is not personal and they are not bad, they just need to stop doing it because it doesn’t work,” she said. “Because I have little internal conflict, it doesn’t feel muddied when it’s received. It’s like a law of nature, like tides coming in and tides going out.”

Being at the helm is not about having power for her, or trying to control her students, Zoe continued. Firm boundaries allow for her to also offer her students a tremendous amount of autonomy and space.

Positive reinforcement is her guiding principle. For example, she described herself as being a “keeper” of her students’ story. This is the basic narrative she tells them: “You are whole, you are centered, you are safe, you are on a path, you have come here with everything you need. We are here to help you and keep you safe.”

Some behaviors, like whining, are not acceptable to her, but Zoe says she tries to tease out the opposite behavior. For example, saying, “You used a really kind voice there: You know how to have good friendships. You are such a good sharer: You know how to be part of a game. That was a really gentle touch: You are so gentle.”

To balance teaching and mothering, Zoe said she has to take care to not get depleted. She meditates every morning, keeps a gratitude list, makes sure she gets enough sleep and tries to practice patience with everyone. She compared people’s emotional states during the pandemic to a skinned knee: tender.

She does talk to her own children about Covid-19, but she doesn’t talk about it at Little Sparrows, except as far as mask-wearing and handwashing.

“I don’t saddle them with information that they can do nothing about because it is none of their business,” she said. “What I mean by that is that they have a job, and it’s not our job. Our job is to figure out what the heck to do on a daily basis with the pandemic, with the planet, with all of the grown-up jobs. Their job is to figure out how to be connected to themselves and to be the most strong, empowered people they can be.”