Home » Outdoor Learning Environments » Inspiration ignites progression at Gan Shalom Nursery School: Day 2 of my garden tours

Inspiration ignites progression at Gan Shalom Nursery School: Day 2 of my garden tours

The Jewish Education Project
The Jewish Education Project is a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York

Shariee Calderone

Special things happen when staff is supported and your director encourages growth and a sense of spirit!

So true is the story at Gan Shalom Nursery School  of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome, which has a recognized outdoor classroom, an inspiring staff, and a beloved Parent Council that contributes to the growth and spirit of the environment year after year.

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My tour today was conducted by Early Childhood Director Laura Reich, Morah Miriam (the 4s teacher), and Morah Lauren (the 3s teacher). Their story underscores how one person’s enthusiasm fuels the next person’s inspiration, which in turn fuels the contributions by parents and synagogue members alike. It’s a cycle that pleasantly repeats itself  over and over at Gan Shalom.

It’s important to note that there’s a special quality in the staff that helps make innovation happen in this school of approximately 40 students. Miriam Miller is a 2010 Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award Winner which recognizes excellence in the field of education. She’s a nature buff and incorporates several aspects of a Reggio-inspired environment in her classroom and curriculum. Lauren Pulver, also a Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award Winner in 2004, began her own journey at Gan Shalom close to 20 years ago, is an accomplished photographer, and has helped spearhead their efforts to document frequently and incorporate social media. She’s also a peer educator who has helped others learn creative documentation techniques. Both are part of the Jewish Education Project’s LOMED initiative, which fosters the creation of contemporary models of Jewish learning  in congregational schools that include families, real life experiences, and community.

So, it’s no surprise that as I take my tour, each and every element that’s been incorporated into the outdoor classroom has a thoughtful story attached…

  • The “spiky” tree that used to be a danger to the children has now become a sculpted topiary thanks to their dedicated custodian custodian Mauricio
  • The Buddha easel was crafted by a generous parent who’s on board to do a few more projects with the left over wood
  • The “stump jumpers” form the perfect circle time area, and on wet days the children know “worms hide underneath”

  • The new planter boxes are not made out of cedar, which was beyond their budget, but instead are crafted from recycled plastic, a kit from Home Depot
  • And the music tower is one of  “my many take-aways”, Miriam’s says from here attendance at last year’s Early Childhood Outdoor Conference at the Pearlstone Center

Morah Miriam’s classroom creatively incorporates several natural elements. There are seedlings and cuttings by the window (many donated by parents), collages on the walls and hallways that now boast recycled materials, and several counting buckets filled with shells, pebbles, and other wooden pieces.

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Her influence on the school’s approach to the use of materials is evident everywhere you look. I’m shown areas of the room and places on the wall where plastics have been swapped out for more earth-friendly alternatives and where natural items “just look better”. Laura Reich spends several minutes describing how the hallway bulletin board has taken shape through two holidays. “It started out as a Manorah during Hanukkah that became our Tu B’shevat tree. The kids didn’t want to see it go, so we worked with them to re-purpose all the materials and create this beautiful tree with recycled objects. It was their idea and work.”

But spending time outside is really where the digging-in to nature takes place. Last month’s Earth Day celebration brought the 2s, 3s, and 4s outside together for planting, creating, and exploring. CLICK HERE to be directed to their FB Page and see a short video that Lauren uploaded yesterday for us. (Look for the May 7, 2013 post).


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The inspiration at Gan Shalom comes full circle each year. Miriam and Lauren continue to educate themselves, attend conferences and speak to other educators. They get ideas and support from colleagues. Their ideas are embraced by Laura who advocates for the school’s continued progress and works with the Parents Council to make things happen. The parents can’t help but be influenced by the energy of the staff which results in an extra pair of hands when needed, donations, and additional funds for “special” items. It’s a little school with very big ideas!

Click here for the next post in this series.



  1. morahlauren says:

    Thanks for seeing the excitement we feel at our incredible school!!

  2. Lauren and Mirian are an inspiration and rtheir dedication and enthusiasm are what makes them such awesome and amazingly gifted teachers.

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