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Putting the Garden Back in Kindergarten

Governor Polis’ efforts to bring free, full-day kindergarten to Colorado’s public schools have been in the news quite often the last several weeks. Currently, Colorado only pays for half-day kindergarten. Those districts that do offer full-day kindergarten pay for it with funds designated for other programs, with local property taxes, or by charging families. Polis recently stated, “It’s time to make the state a full partner with our (school) districts. We simply need to ensure that kindergarten is treated as the critical part of our public education infrastructure that it is.”

As a parent, grandparent, and educator, I understand the reasoning behind this push for full-day kindergarten. We all want the very best education for our children, and we often assume that getting kids started with their formal academic education earlier is better than later.

This assumption has contributed to the trend in our nation’s kindergartens to push academics – like getting kids to read early – at the expense of the free play, self-directed learning and exploration that used to make up the bulk of a kindergartener’s day. As Christopher Brown, University of Texas professor of Early Childhood Education framed it, “Across the country, kindergartners are being told what to do and how to do it, every single step along the way, all day long. They play less and study more than they did 20 years ago. This is what kindergarten has become, and it’s not a good thing.”

There is much research to support Professor Brown’s view. Yes, studies indicate that this academic redirection of the kindergarten focus does produce initial successes in academic performance. But the successes are temporary, and studies also clearly indicate that by mid-elementary grades, these academic advances disappear. For example, a large-scale German study compared the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens with the graduates of 50 academic-based kindergartens. After initial academic gains of the academic-based kindergarteners, by grade four the children from the academic-based kindergartens performed significantly worse on every measure that was used in comparison to those from the play-based kindergartens.

This study, and many others, indicate that, along with lower performance in academics, those who attended academic-based kindergartens also had more social and emotional challenges through the rest of their academic careers, and even into adulthood. Boston College research professor Peter Gray put it this way, “Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.”

The skills and qualities that so many educators, parents, and research say are the foundation of academic success – initiative, problem-solving, invention, persistence, resilience, grit – the very skills that are developed in play-based kindergartens, are what is being lost in our academic-based kindergartens.

There are those in early childhood education who recognize the above trends. In response, they are actively working to provide an alternative kind of kindergarten that puts the “garden” back in kindergarten. Called Nature or Forest Kindergartens, with roots in Europe and now found in many locations in the US, advocates of these Nature- and play-based kindergartens (and preschools) recognize that, along with the loss of play and self-directed learning, academic-based early childhood programs tend to alienate children from the natural world.

These Nature Kindergarten advocates believe that the original image of the kindergarten, the “children’s garden,” has been replaced by academic-based programs that only deepen what is sometimes called the “indoor-ification” of early childhood. A preoccupation with academics and testing; an over-fascination with and over-use of technology; less, or no time for play, recess, art and music; the increased use of worksheets – is why many parents, early childhood educators and pediatric health practitioners believe that there truly is a kindergarten crisis in America. Children aren’t playing in the garden; instead, they are ardently filling in bubbles on worksheets.

So, as full-day kindergarten is being debated and considered, I urge Governor Polis, our elected representatives, as well as those who work in early childhood education, to incorporate early childhood education research findings and Nature Kindergarten philosophy into what the kindergartens in Colorado – whether they be full-day or half-day – will look like. Play, self-directed learning, exploration, Nature – these need to be the focus of Colorado’s young children’s kindergarten experience. Please, put the garden back in Colorado’s kindergartens.

40 Day Love Fest: Music Brought Us Together – The Van Manens are born

In the beginning, there was music.

If there is a thread that connects the entire length of our marriage, as well as the couple of years we were together before we were married, it is music. Making it and listening to it.

lovefestroseJust a few months before we met, Dave did his first public performance at his high school (Brooklyn Tech) after abandoning the plan to become a professional football player (his not-quite 5’7″ stature had something to do with this abandonment) and setting his sights on a music career. Helene’s vocals led to the two-part harmony that became one of the Van Manens’ trademarks.  We were in love and in love with the songs that fueled our desire to leave NYC…Country Roads by John Denver, Dark Hollow (David Bromberg), and Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles).

at badlands

Badlands National Monument in South Dakota, a couple of weeks after we were married.

Along with our friend Tommy Kessler, we made a demo of a few of our songs at A & R Recording Studio, Dave’s place of employment the year before we were married (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and Judy Collins were among the artists who recorded there that year). The demo didn’t really go anywhere, but it sowed some recording seeds that would eventually germinate.

We were into the Eagles years before they became the super-popular band they later became.

We were lucky to go to some of the best concerts in the early years – Jackson Browne (Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ), James Taylor (Carnegie Hall), Eagles (2x at Capitol Theatre, one show 2nd row center, tickets were $5.65 each), and Janis Ian (Central Park).

singing at yule log 1977
Beulah Yule Log event in Pueblo Mountain Park, late 70s.

Not long after arriving in Colorado, we spent some time as students in the Music Department at the University of So. Colorado, Dave taught music privately and then at the University, and we were soon singing at weddings. We sang the Wedding Song by Paul Stookey, Follow Me (John Denver), and Longer (Dan Fogelberg) at a whole lot of weddings. We were soon doing music therapy at area hospitals, and our writing music together led us back into the recording studio.

in studio

Recording at FTM Studios in Denver, 1986 or ’87.

We happily found ourselves drawn to making music for children, which led to traveling throughout the country during the late 80s and the 90s making a living on our songs, including We Recycle, Don’t Whine, I Love My Home… Libraries, schools, church basements, living rooms, parks, peace rallies, festivals – we sang in thousands of places.  Little did we know back then that our music would someday be uploadable through something called “itunes” and that a future generations of children would be singing the songs we wrote for our children and their friends.

state fair 1984
Street Performing, mid 80s.





Peace Rally with Elaine Lopez Pacheco

 With our lifetime friend Elaine Lopez Pacheco at a peace rally on the lawn outside the Pueblo, CO Courthouse, around 1990.

 Paul Simon recorded this song at A&R Studios the year Dave worked there. We love this song!

In 2000, ready to “retire” from the music business, we both launched new careers (Helene as a Coach, Dave opening the Mountain Park Environmental Center). But music continues to enrich our lives and nurture our connection as we take music into our present day work and play – on hikes, out under the oaks, with children, and into the desert in our ’95 Eurovan. And there is singing in our house most every day.

Our music has taken us a long long way since we first sang together back in the spring of 1974, on a picnic bench in Forest Park, or on the corner of Gates and Seneca where we “hung out.” Music has also moved into the next generations – our kids Sierra and Sequoia played piano, guitar, danced, and they sang on several of our albums and performed with us when they accompanied us on our tours. And now our grandkids play a variety of instruments and receive countless lessons in music appreciation and instrument instruction from us.

A deepening of our connection to each other often takes place when we listen to music and, especially, when we make music.

An unspoken clarity rings through us about who we are together, why we are living this life on the planet at this time, and what we are meant to be doing. It  ground us and helps keep things in perspective when the world seems too crazy or is moving too fast.

Most days you will find a well-played guitar taking a break on the couch, or the Beatles or Bach or David Wilcox filling the air, or the sounds of a uke coming from the back deck, or one or both of us  irresistibly dancing to the B-52s.  It’s a wonderful musical life!



dhvm canyonlandsDave and Helene Van Manen found each other as teenagers in their New York neighborhoods, left for Colorado and let love carry them as they grew up together. Today they are reaping the joys of decades of loving and learning together.

Hanging Out in a Treehouse

Fifteen feet above the forest floor.

Enveloped by the needled branches of white fir and Douglas fir trees. Cooled by a most welcome breeze that carries the slightest hint of fall. Chattering pygmy nuthatches from the tops of the nearby pines. It’s been a good long while, and way too long – decades, in fact – since I spent any time in a treehouse.



Every kid should know what it is like to play, daydream, climb into, relax, and just hang out in a treehouse.

Making sure my two grandchildren would have this knowledge is a part of being a grandpa that I take very seriously. It’s right up there with camping, pointing out birds and animal tracks and bear scat, visiting National Parks, hiking and backpacking, teaching them the names of wildflowers and trees, building things like a birdhouse, a raft, and, of course, a treehouse.


So, over the past several months when we could carve out some time, Jude, Scarlett and I have been working on this wonderful little structure that is perched around the red-bark trunk of a 100-year-old ponderosa pine. It is located in the woods that surround my funky mountain home. With the completion of the ladder that we built this past weekend, the treehouse is now officially done!

jude w drill





Jude and Scarlett are in school today, so I am up here by myself right now.

I may be a grandfather, but the kid inside of me can’t get enough of being in this treehouse. What a perfect way to spend an hour, or two hours, or a whole September afternoon.



 Dave Van Manen/