So long to a preschool purist

by Patty Fisher – Mercury News in Palo Alto, CA – USA

Back in the days before “parent” became a verb, before toddlers were using computers and kindergartners had homework, Peter Wing was running a preschool where children did nothing but play. They ran around, acted silly, listened to stories and simply behaved like kids.

Wing’s Palo Alto preschool, called Heffalump, hasn’t changed much since he took it over in 1976. While 3- and 4-year-olds at other preschools today are memorizing their ABCs and working on “kindergarten readiness,” the kids at Heffalump are still following their own whims and “wasting time” daydreaming.

Wing, a teddy bear of a man with a long gray braided pony tail, is the biggest kid of them all.

But change is finally coming to Heffalump. Peter Wing is leaving – he doesn’t use the word “retire.” At age 56, after 32 years at Heffalump, he is packing up his guitar, his imagination and his silly sense of humor and moving to Hawaii.

Folks in the Heffalump community can’t quite imagine the place without him.

“Every bit of mischief that I know I learned from Peter,” said Cheryl Lynn, his longtime assistant, who is the new director.

The other day I stopped by, curious to see firsthand the magic I’ve heard about for so long from Heffalump parents and alums.

The one-room school in the Ventura Community Center in south Palo Alto felt calm despite the presence of 16 busy children, ages 2-5. They were pushing doll strollers, playing in the two-story playhouse/fort/castle, building with red, blue and yellow bristle blocks. Wing was on an old sofa, with children draped around him as he read them a story.

He doesn’t believe in pushing kids to focus on academics. His curriculum, he says, “is infused with thousands of opportunities every day for children to explore and grow.”

“I just can’t think of drilling kids with conceptual curriculum that is irrelevant to them,” he said. “I think the best thing you can do for kids this age is to encourage them to be the great, wonderful people they are.”

Working wonders

Wing is known as a gentle soul who works wonders especially with shy kids, kids who don’t speak English and kids with learning or behavioral quirks.

“As soon as I walked in, I knew this was the place,” said Chen Hamam, whose son Matan spoke no English when they moved here from Israel. At Heffalump, Wing has helped Matan, 3, with his English and his self-confidence.

“We are so sad and sorry that he’s leaving – and so blessed that we have known him,” his mom said.

Heffalump is a parent co-op, so all parents are required to help out at the school one day a month. The parents get as much out of the program as the kids do.

“I spend a lot of time reassuring them,” he said. “These days there’s so much reliance on experts. I’ve seen parents lose trust in their own innate parenting skills.”

The day I visited, Hamam was setting out waffles and syrup for the morning snack.

Wing announced it was time to eat: “Anyone who has a belly button can wash their hands.”

A couple of kids ran off to the sink while two others sat and compared belly buttons.

Five-year-old Sasha, who will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall, wore a pink dress and her blond hair in neat braids. I asked her what she had learned at Heffalump.

“Oh, we haven’t learned anything yet,” she said.

Yet Wing has a way of sneaking the learning in without anyone noticing.

“Just think,” he said as the kids munched waffles and licked syrup off their fingers. “If we took the W off of the word ‘waffle’ it would be AWFUL!”

They thought that was pretty funny.

Then he entertained them with a long, elaborate story about tigers and monkeys, acting it out with masks and sound effects. Wing is a master story teller. He’s popular at birthday parties and at the Palo Alto Children’s Library, where his wife, Melinda, is the supervising librarian.

Storytelling, he says, teaches kids a valuable skill: listening.

Worthy lessons

I think of the sound-bite, talk-over-each-other style of discourse that passes for conversation in this day of short attention spans. Forget about drilling toddlers on their ABCs. If he can teach them to listen to something else besides their iPods, that would be quite an accomplishment.

Lynn says she’ll preserve Wing’s philosophy, though she might add a few special activities for the 5-year-olds to prepare them for kindergarten. Even Heffalump, it seems, has to keep up with the times.

Perhaps that’s why Wing decided to go. “I do notice that children work at a faster pace these days,” he said.

So he’s heading to Maui, where the pace is slower. He’s not sure what he’ll do when he gets there, but it will have to involve kids.

“If I don’t have regular contact with children,” he said, “I’ll go bonkers.”

July 6, 2008