By Erin Wyble Newcomb
Photos: Roy Brueckner
The friendly goats provided the first glimpse of the farm, and I traveled up the gravelly road, past a cabin and a barn with a hayloft, to meet Heather Longyear, who founded and runs Little School on the Farm to bring her passion for play-based preschool education to Woodstock and the Hudson Valley. Heather welcomed me into the school space, which was recently converted from the original farmhouse purchased by her husband Matt’s grandparents shortly after World War II. There’s generations of family history in the building, from its original occupants to the work Heather, her husband and their three children put in last summer to make the preschool possible.
Heather led me through the mudroom area, where pictures of the students and their names decorated their cubbies, through a small kitchen and dining area, into the main room. A colorful rug sprawled out before a roaring fire; this, Heather told me, is where circle time begins each day at the school. The children take turns sharing the role of star-for-the-day, and Heather introduces the day’s activities. There are lots of choices and lots of time for free play, an essential component of Heather’s program. She says the kids love the “old-fashioned listening station” and its mysterious cassette player, as well as superhero pretend play. It is a warm space, not just because of the cozy room and flickering fire, but because I can so easily picture Heather singing and talking there with the children. The farm felt warm even during this winter that won’t quit, and I get the feeling that’s a reflection of its caretakers’ love.
I have known Heather for several years, so her dedication to her family, her home and her community never came as a surprise to me, but I was delighted when I learned about her preschool endeavor. When I asked about her timing for starting the school, she explained, “I have thought about it for many years. This past year, the timing was right. I have worked or taught only part time since my children were born. My oldest is now almost 12 and my youngest was starting kindergarten, so I was ready to get back to my passion of teaching on a more consistent basis. In addition, the local play-based preschool where my children attended was closing, as the teacher was ready to retire. The closure of this beloved preschool left a big void in the community.” The Little School on the Farm fills that void and provides a unique educational experience where nature and play are integral to childhood.
On a typical day, Heather and her students visit and feed the goats, collect eggs from the chickens and play outside as much as possible. There’s a small play-yard with toys as well as the farm itself to explore. We sat and talked next to shelves filled with seedlings the children had planted, and, when the weather warms, they’ll transplant those to the greenhouse and then the garden. It’s normal for them to pick and eat plants from the farm, a process that Heather says encourages them to try vegetables they normally wouldn’t try; one day, they made a rhubarb sauce for their pancakes. The children get to see every stage, from the seeds they start to the meals they prepare. As Heather explains, “Our natural world is our greatest classroom, and there is no better place for a child to explore than the outdoors. Having the school on our farm allows my students to be a part of our homesteading lifestyle, and it gives them the opportunity to take part in all aspects of this life.” Taking care of the farm and participating in the daily chores helps the children feel like part of the farm, an emphasis that is central to Heather’s educational philosophy.
Some of the children were already familiar with the farm through Heather’s Storytime on the Farm program, which will run during the summer on Tuesday mornings. Some get to interact with nature in new ways for the first time at the preschool. For Heather, that’s part of the joy of teaching. As she says, “Seeing these experiences through the eyes of the children makes me truly appreciate how important the simple things are and how blessed my family is to live this lifestyle.” Both the farm and the school are labors of love for Heather’s whole family, and all of them were present the gray morning of my visit.
Heather’s elder daughter Aylie (aged eight) was curled up in a corner of the most popular room in the schoolhouse; she’d found a quiet nook until she decided it wasn’t too cold to visit with some of the animals. When she gets a snow day, Aylie likes to help Heather teach. Josie (aged five) rode along in her dad’s pickup truck, keeping him company as he worked on an addition for the sap house; a poor winter for sap meant an opportunity for a much-needed expansion, so, next winter, Heather’s students can get a little closer to the process of making maple syrup. Josie loves the animals and the toys, many of which were donated by the kids’ former local preschool. Jack follows in his father’s footsteps and clearly has a way with animals; by the time we got to the goat pen on our walk, Leo was loudly protesting his absence.
It’s Heather’s dream to share the farm legacy with her children and with her community, and it’s a dream that’s always growing. Long-Year Farm’s primary products are beef, hay, maple syrup and garlic. Heather calls the garlic “a fairly new venture” that’s been popular with local restaurants. Some friends recently moved onto the property, too, and now Mira’s Naturals operates from the premises as well, adding beekeeping to the repertoire, along with products made from honey and beeswax. The extensions into the community, from the farm products to the story hour to the school, all express how Heather sees her family fitting into the Hudson Valley: “I believe that farming is an integral part of the Hudson Valley, both in its past and, more importantly, in our hopefully clean and sustainable future.” So, while the farm originated in the 1940s with Matt’s grandparents, the dream of Long-Year Farm evolves with each generation.
The dream, like the farm itself, requires daily care. Heather describes her routine as follows: “I start my day by getting my own three children ready and off to school. I then head down to the farm (where the school is located), and after feeding our horse, I prepare for my day at the school. The morning of school may include circle time, process-based art activities, stories, cooking, meditation, sensory play, snack time, farming activities—such as collecting eggs, feeding animals, working in the garden—and lots of child-centered free play, both indoors and outdoors. The children are picked up at 12:30 and then after cleaning up from the morning, it is time to help complete some farm chores.” As she showed me around the farm, it was clear that there’s no shortage of work and no shortage of ideas. The homesteading endeavor requires commitment from the entire family to be sustainable, but it’s a lifestyle they all seem to love.
As we petted the goats, Heather joked that her childhood dream was based on her favorite book—Charlotte’s Web. She said at first she didn’t quite believe Matt when he told her he was a farmer who lived on a working, local farm. Now, 14 years later, she’s living her dream and raising her children in the life she always wanted. Our conversation was peppered with Heather’s comments about how lucky she feels to live in the Hudson Valley on the beautiful Long-Year Farm, operating Little School on the Farm. I get the feeling, though, that her students, and those of us who get to visit, are just as lucky to experience the Longyears’ legacy of love.
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