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The Journey of a Steadfast Acorn: The Story of Painted Oak Nature School

Painted Oak Nature School began as a small, intentional community nestled in a sweet suburban woodland. Founded in 2012 by Nicole Langdo, an innovative educator frustrated by the constraints of traditional schooling and inspired by her own childhood spent exploring the wild, she created a simple yet bold vision: 

a nature-based preschool where learning happens outside - in all weather - in all seasons 

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In outdoor classrooms, in meadows, under tall trees, and on nature trails, children were given opportunities to learn directly from nature by immersing themselves in the wonders of the natural world where their CREATIVITY was encouraged, their INDEPENDENCE was fostered, and a warm COMMUNITY was built.

 

Within a handful of years, Painted Oak Nature School became a leader in the field of nature-based education, a beacon of hope and inspiration for other educators of what could be. As the first school in New Jersey to offer weekly Forest School sessions, curious colleagues and administrators requested opportunities to observe. Professional conferences were held for nature-based educators from all over the country to attend, gaining strategies, ideas, and encouragement to develop their own programs. Articles were written, speaking engagements were given, and outreach continued. 

When the global pandemic hit in 2020, families sought alternatives to remote learning, desiring safe, outdoor environments for their children. Painted Oak was seen as a respite for new families to join and for older alums to return. PONS experienced a sudden surge in enrollment. The school expanded rapidly to accommodate the growing demand, adding new programs and buildings, and hiring more staff. The once small and intimate preschool and kindergarten quickly grew into a bustling educational center for elementary and middle schoolers.

However, this rapid expansion brought unforeseen challenges. The close-knit community began to splinter as older students aged-up, and the staff that supported them needed more direction. Resources were stretched thin. Curriculum that supported the young learners for years and years was now not enough for the older students. Internal conflicts arose over differing visions for the school’s future. The sense of unity and purpose that had defined Painted Oak started to fade. It was clear that the school had overextended itself. Nicole and her team faced the harsh reality that their rapid growth had led them away from their original mission. The future of Painted Oak seemed uncertain.

In the face of declining numbers and increasing challenges, Nicole decided it was time to reflect and reassess. She gathered her core team and loyal parents to revisit the school’s founding principles. They held deep discussions about what made Painted Oak special and how they could return to those roots. It became clear that they needed to prioritize community, standards, and a genuine connection to nature over expansion. They needed to return to the core values that had made the school special in the first place.

 

As these changes took hold in the final month of the 2023-24 school year, the spirit of PONS began to revive. Word spread about the school’s return to its foundational values, and enrollment began to stabilize. Families were drawn to the school’s renewed commitment to fostering a deep connection with nature and a strong sense of community. The internal conflicts subsided as everyone united around a shared vision. 

 

For the 2024-25 school year, Painted Oak Nature School will open with a renewed sense of purpose. Nicole and her team will implement difficult but necessary changes. They will scale back the size of the school. They will reinstate the community traditions that had been lost in the rush to expand. Teachers will receive additional guidance and training to enhance their ability to deliver inspiring nature-based education

 

For its 13th year, Painted Oak Nature School will come full circle. It will return to its roots, focusing on what made it special from the beginning: a small, intentional community dedicated to nature-based education. The school will once again be a place where children will explore the forest, learn about the environment, and grow under the guidance of a nurturing, supportive community of adults. 

 

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Painted Oak’s journey through rapid expansion and the subsequent challenges taught invaluable lessons about the importance of reflection and renewal and demonstrating that setbacks can be overcome with vision and dedication.

Painted Oak Nature School’s story is a testament to resilience, and the power of a united community.

Sometimes the path to growth requires taking a step back, reevaluating, and recommitting to what truly matters. 

 

By honoring their beginnings and learning from their journey, PONS will return to the sustainable, thriving community they once were, one that will continue to nurture generations of children, teaching them the beauty and importance of the natural world.

Drawing on inspiration from educator David Sobel, 

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. 

Furthermore, as environmentalist Rachel Carson said, 

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. “

~ May WE ALL be those adults ~ 

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