“This isn’t your typical preschool,” Lia D. Johnson said of her home-based child care business.
The name, Little Tree Huggers, is the first indication of that. And the second hint may be the students’ supply list, which includes a request for a raincoat and mucking boots.
“We spend a lot of time outside,” said Johnson, founder and director of the school.
She, alongside her husband George, opened Little Tree Huggers in July on 3 acres along Gleedsville Road south of Leesburg. They consider the property’s rolling hills, historic barn, chicken coop and gardens as much of a classroom as the indoor portion of the house they have converted into a more typical-looking preschool.
They describe Little Tree Huggers as Loudoun County’s “first bilingual, eco-green preschool,” and say their goal is to encourage children to connect with and care for nature, as well as celebrate and respect the diversity of “our multicultural world.”
Mobilizing this kind of a preschool concept has been a dream of Lia Johnson’s throughout her 25-year career. She’s served in several roles in the field of early childhood education during that time, including creating curriculum as the arts director for a Boys & Girls Club in central Delaware and as a founding teacher at Destiny School for the Arts in Leesburg.
Johnson said Little Tree Huggers brings together the best of the schools in which she’s worked. She leads structured lessons in art, math, science and history, as well as regular story times. The preschoolers also have a chance to pick up some Spanish, as the Argentina native teaches the students some of the basics of the language.
The youngsters spend much of their day helping out on the working farm. They feed the animals—a pony, two alpacas and chickens—and help clean out the pens and put down fresh straw. In the mornings, they make their way to the coop to collect eggs, which become the supplies of a tasty cooking lesson later in the day.
“They help me make fresh omelets, which they love,” Johnson said. “They learn while they have fun. That’s what this is all about.”
During playtime, she lets the children’s creativity lead the way. During a tour of the school’s facilities, she pointed out that there is no multi-thousand-dollar playground. The kids have access to a simple tree house, wooden blocks and a lot of free space.
“Nature provides a lot of opportunity for creative learning,” Johnson said.
Melissa Taliaferro, whose 5-year-old son attends the preschool, said she’s been impressed by the curriculum and Johnson’s willingness to let the children explore, whether through an art lesson or in the outdoors.
“She has a nice way of keeping them interested in learning but they’re not always realizing that they’re learning,” she said. “She doesn’t care if they get messy or dirty. … She’s unbelievably willing to let them try anything.”
The Johnsons also live out what they preach, Taliaferro said.
They are working to become the first carbon neutral preschool in the area, and they’re making big strides to get there. They converted their oil burning HVAC system to geothermal and installed solar panels to run a ventilation system in the chicken coop. Their next goal is to install more solar panels and possibly a wind turbine by 2020.
“The kids are seeing all that [the Johnsons] are doing to be eco-friendly, which is giving them a good foundation,” Taliaferro said.
Little Tree Huggers now has six students enrolled, but is accepting applications from interested families. Earlier this month, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors approved Little Tree Huggers to expand to as many as 12 students. Tuition starts at $630 per month for six hours, five days a week, and goes up to $950 per month for 10 hours, five days a week. Learn more at www.littletreehuggersllc.com.