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From The Lincoln Magazine | Natural Wonder: Exploring the Early Childhood Studio

There is a sense in The Studio—stacked high and wide with a rainbow of resources in all shapes, makes, and sizes—that this room is a world of its own. For the young children who come here, it is a place to discover not just what they can do, but who they are; not only how things work, but how far their curiosity can take them.

Giovonne Calenda, the curator of Lincoln’s Early Childhood Studio, has spent the last 22 years teaching boys and girls ages 3–6 the art of exploration, provocation, and discovery through fine art materials, found objects, and some of nature’s greatest treasures. On any given day, students manipulate clay, paint, wood, wire, fiber, paper, and more to shape their own learning. And though the tools themselves are impressive, Calenda is quick to point out that the physical materials are just the beginning.

“The Studio is first and foremost, a place of discovery,” said Calenda, eyes shining bright while speaking about her work. “It’s not simply about what is in here, it’s about making connections through exploration. It’s a place where, if you listen, materials will speak out to you, spark your curiosity, and connect you with yourself and the world.”

The Studio is a central hub for Lincoln’s Reggio Emilia philosophy, an innovative, child-led approach to early education, which originated in the Italian town of the same name. The philosophy echoes within the entire Lower School program, but while exploring a seashell-studded corner, or digging into a jar of earthen offerings, the tenets of Reggio Emilia become clear in Calenda’s room: here, children are trusted and valued.

“If you think about life, early childhood is such a precious period, and a missable opportunity for young learners to discover who they are,” said Calenda, who works in small groups of six or fewer students to maximize one-on-one connection. “Our biggest opportunity in The Studio is to give children time. Everything is so rushed in the world, but here we breathe deeply into exploration, shoring up what children inherently are: strong, capable, and curious people with their own rights and minds.”

Calenda, who initially worked with a small group of other early childhood teachers to shape the course of the space and the ever-evolving curriculum, first had the opportunity to visit the town of Reggio Emilia in 2000; there, she observed, absorbed, and deepened her understanding of the ideology in order to apply it to Lincoln’s own unique culture.

“At the heart of the Reggio Emilia philosophy … is adapting the approach to each community’s needs. My work here at Lincoln is influenced by its being a Quaker school in Providence, situated on this beautiful campus, but also influenced by my own life and history,” said Calenda, who lives on a sheep farm on Narragansett Bay, a place she has called home since age five. “We all come to The Studio with our own context—child, parent, and teacher alike. The gifts of the individual are shared to enhance the fabric of the larger community.”

Calenda’s own personal interests as a nature lover and fiber artist are visible throughout her classroom in spools of dyed wool and intricately woven tapestries, but also in another beloved area of campus—the Lincoln School Edible Garden on Dwight House lawn. The Edible Garden was established in the spring of 2008 under the advisement of the Southside Community Land Trust, and dedicated the same year in honor of beloved Kindergarten teacher and garden enthusiast, Libby O’Neal. With the addition of a greenhouse and potting shed in 2011 (gifted by the graduating class of 2011), the garden has grown since its inception, and continues to provide in more ways than one.

“We plant, care for, and harvest organic herbs, vegetables, and fruit, sharing our bounty by enhancing the lunches they serve at Lincoln. Working in the garden is integrated into the curriculum for Early Childhood students and Grade 3, and it’s an incredibly special piece of what we do because it’s a true expression of community,” said Calenda. “But, of course, we’re not actually teaching gardening—we’re teaching exploration through food, the importance of trying new things, responsibility through caring for outdoor creatures, and stewardship of this great Earth.”

These teachings are central to Lincoln’s Quaker philosophy and practices, and embraced in Lower School through SPICES—which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Service/Stewardship of the Earth.

“All SPICES come to life in The Studio,” said Calenda. “We find wonder in the smallest and simplest of places. We value community, caring, and mutual respect, which in turn lead to peace. Even our youngest know how to be part of the community, to treat each other fairly and find out what fair means–that everyone is an important part of the greater group. And the Earth is all around us in here, not just in how we explore nature, but in how we act as caretakers and citizens of our world.”

Calenda, who had dreamed of being a teacher since she was herself a Studio-age child, continues to learn both with and from the students with whom she works.

“In this room, the children are researchers, experts, and teachers. We all learn together,” said Calenda. “Together, every day we learn to think deeply, to question what we think we know, to embrace a unique way of seeing how things work and express who we are. It’s the greatest job there is.”

This piece was originally published in 2019 | Issue 1 of The Lincoln Magazine