Anna Wardwell is passionate about two things — nature and children. With her newly opened and licensed child care program Little Learners Homestead, LLC, in Hampden, she hopes to connect those two passions in a fun, dynamic learning environment that just may have grownups wishing they could sign up, too.
Wardwell and her husband Justin live on their 6-acre homestead with Luna and Poppy the Nigerian dwarf goats, three pigs named Noche, Leche and Dolche, and a mixed flock of chickens, guinea hens and one duck who leads them all.
“I feel like a kid myself when I am out with the animals or picking vegetables in the garden,” Wardwell said. “I want to share that joy with kids.”
Wardwell currently has three students in her program, but if all goes according to plan, that enrollment will increase to eight by the end of the month when she is fully licensed by the state. As a licensed child care program, Little Learners Homestead will accept students between 3 and 6 years old.
The Little Learners operates Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and days revolve around life on the homestead and hands-on activities. According to Wardwell, the children will be actively involved in everything from growing the food used in meals and snacks to milking the goats and feeding the chickens.
But the most important part of every day of learning is having fun.
Anna Wardwell helps Sebastian Farcasanu, 3, do farm chores at her newly opened child care program called Little Learners Homestead in Hampden. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
“It’s so great to share my love of food and the outdoors with kids,” said Wardwell, whose background includes special education, environmental science, marine biology and farming. “A farm is one of the most meaningful connections to the food we eat and I want to share how it shaped my life in such a special way.”
Each day begins with what Wardwell calls a “welcome circle,” which includes singing, storytelling and fun lessons revolving around the program’s monthly theme. Then come the farm chores.
“I hope they won’t see them as ‘chores,’” Wardwell said with a laugh. “I am not going to have them out there shoveling out a barn — we will collect eggs, feed animals or work in the compost.”
Next spring the youngsters will help Wardwell plant her vegetable and herb gardens and then learn about how the food grows over the summer. When ripe, harvested vegetables, herbs and flowers will be used to make snacks and blended teas.
Meals and snacks are included daily and the children will be included in many parts of food preparation. In a sort of farm-to-children’s-table model, milk from the two goats will be used to make yogurt or butter that can be eaten with sourdough bread that uses a sourdough starter made by the children. When food is delivered to Little Learners, Wardwell said the children will help unpack it and talk about how it can be used in healthy meals or snacks.
“They will get to experience the ‘magic’ of plant seeds,” Wardwell said. “They will plant them and then watch them come up, harvest what grows and eat what they harvest — that still makes me feel like a kid each time.”
Unless there is extreme weather, Wardwell said her students spend time outdoors every day. Trails, clearings and other areas of the farm have been designed with safe structured and unstructured play in mind. She said the student to staff ratio will always be at least 4-to-1.
Anna Wardwell and Sebastian Farcasanu, 3, do farm chores at her newly opened child care program called Little Learners Homestead in Hampden. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Safety is the top priority at Little Learners and children will be encouraged to test their own comfort zones and learn how to assess risk through play. Areas around the farm will be stocked with materials to encourage creativity and imaginative play like fort-building or exploring.
“If a kid comes to me and wants to climb a big rock we are going to first talk it out,” Wardwell said. “I want them to figure out if it’s a good idea or not and allow them to make their own decisions.”
Wardwell has been thrilled watching a current student get more and more at ease with being outside and around the animals — at his own pace — after not really wanting to go outside at all.
“I am watching him grow more comfortable with different parts of the farm,” she said. “The other day I gave him a choice of heading back inside or staying outside, and he wanted to stay outside. That has been so awesome to see him progress and get more confident.”
Little Learners’ indoor space is a converted basement apartment that opens directly out to a large mowed lawn area. Inside is brightly painted and well stocked with toys, books and that farm chore necessity — muck boots.
Wardwell said she still has spots open and is delighted she can help meet what she sees as a real need for good child care in Maine, while at the same time teaching the importance of farms and farm life.
“I hope the kids can start to see the connection between farming and the food they eat,” she said. “I have such a love for farming and for kids and really think this is something different that will work.”
Correction: A previous story incorrectly identified the type of program that Little Learners is. It is a child care program.