Tucked in the woods of Sagaponack, there is a small nursery school program where two and three-year-olds are taught to be life-long green citizens. The children recycle, help tend compost bins and, come spring, will learn to grow herbs and plants in a garden. It would seem difficult to imbue lasting lessons on environmentalism to students who are still fine tuning their motor skills, but Mari Linnman, who founded the local “Green” Preschool program this fall, says it is easier than most people might think.
Above: Linnman’s son Mattias Linnman Howard keeps company with the chickens at his mother’s green preschool in Sagaponack.
“You just have to show them what to do and they get it right away. They thrive on routines and being a ‘big person.’ They like that they are the ones who get to recycle something,” explained Linnman, who created a similar preschool in New York City and is also the founder of the Art Farm camp in Bridgehampton and New York City. A finished barn on her property in Sagpaonack — between Sag Harbor and Montauk Highway — doubles as the site for the East End version of the Green Preschool.
Before the word green became synonymous with environmentalism, or the concepts of organics and sustainability were in vogue, Linnman always attempted to engage children in their surroundings. When the Art Farm started in 1995, Linnman did this with horses, sheep, ducks and a box of crayons. As she explains on the Art Farm website, the camp program focused on “nature, animals and art.” In the art component of the courses, Linnman tried to use only recycled materials and continues to uphold this practice. Over last summer, Art Farm campers held a “Fashion Project Runway” featuring designs made with reused supplies.
Linnman says her green endeavors were inspired by her early experiences with animals. As a child, Linnman spent a lot of time at a relative’s dairy farm in Sweden, the country where she grew up.
“That is what gave me the soul that I ended up with,” observed Linnman. “When I moved out here I saw a need in general when it comes to being green. The school has been a dream of mine. I had to do something for the local community year round. My own way of living just naturally turned into a green school.”
For Linnman, the environmental connection for her young charges starts with forming a relationship with the animals. At the school, there are two horses, goats, a pig, two donkeys and several chickens. The children help feed the animals leftovers along with grains and hay and learn different facts about them from an animal educator. On Thursdays, the youngsters bake a healthy treat using eggs from the nearby chicken coop. The scraps from the baking session are then either fed back to the animals or composted.
“It is a nice little eco-cycle,” noted Linnman.
In working with the animals, Linnman hopes children will be unafraid of these tame creatures. The many suburban neighborhoods on the East End gives local children few opportunities to be around animals.
Linnman also retrofitted the school building with solar panels, which provides power for the preschool and her home. She also hopes to include a charitable element to the organization. For every child enrolled in her preschool in New York City, Linnman donates a few hundred dollars to sponsor a young student in Thailand through her organization Mari’s Children. Every year over 100 children benefit from the charity, added Linnman.
Molding young minds to care for their environment isn’t Linnman’s only task. She says parents must also be involved in the process in order for the habits developed at the green preschool to continue over the long term. Linnman regularly sends out a newsletter to families detailing the curriculum for a given week. She also encourages parents to practice sustainability at home through recycling or composting.
From the inception of the preschool to many day-to-day operations, Linnman is involved in almost every step except for the instruction. Linnman’s background lies in business and physical therapy but she has always enjoyed working with children.
Two teachers, however, oversee and carry out the lesson plans. This fall marked the first season for the East End preschool. With only eight children, each student had a highly personalized experience, added Linnman. She hopes to keep the green school’s operations small and said she would take at most 12 students.
Of the preschool program, Linnman says, “This is driving from the heart, not from money. This is just a passion of mine and I am very happy with it.”