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  • Tara Crutchfield

WonderHere

Little hands tend to rosemary, garlic chives, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts on a 10-acre farm in Lakeland. They collect eggs from chickens and plant bluebells, among other farm chores. They take a moment to pet Gilbert, the resident cat. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are well-balanced with play, creativity, and open green space at this private microschool. Fresh air and freedom inspire joyful shouts and giggles.


WonderHere, a learn-and-play farm and schoolhouse for pre-K and elementary-aged children, cultivates wonder and a love of learning in its students. According to WonderHere, “We strive to holistically develop children who are curious, empathetic, community-minded, problem solvers, and creative leaders.”


The school promotes play-based, project-driven, and personalized education, with the schoolhouse divided into areas of interest, including a library, science lab, project room, study, and a STEM room. Whether attending a half or full day at WonderHere, students receive direct instruction in language arts and math with an assigned teacher.


But at WonderHere, it isn’t about letter grades and test scores – it’s about exploring that intangible curiosity we lose somewhere along the way to adolescence. Or maybe we don’t ‘lose’ it. Perhaps it isn’t appropriately nurtured and withers. That curiosity – that wonder – needs tending like the bee balm and milkweed in the garden.



Alongside learning the core subjects, kids at WonderHere can traverse the schoolhouse according to their pace and areas of interest. Ten-year-old Eva likes “everything” about WonderHere but has a particular affinity for acting class and hanging out with her friends. Matias, a curly-haired seven-year-old, enjoys the freedom and “being able to run around.” Gavin, age 12, has a unique perspective on the microschool. He attended WonderHere before his family moved. He went to traditional school for a time before returning to the Lakeland farm and schoolhouse. “You didn’t have as much freedom to do what you wanted,” he said of public school. He enjoys that he doesn’t have to change classes and remain seated. “We can move around and work with our friends,” he said.


A SPARK OF WONDER

Former public school teachers and best friends Jessica Zivkovich and Tiffany Thenor founded WonderHere in 2016 as an urban alternative learning space. “We questioned if there was a different way to do school,” said Zivkovich, who has a Bachelor’s in Exceptional Student Education and a Master’s in Reading Education from Southeastern University and over ten years of teaching experience.


Co-founder Tiffany Thenor also graduated from Southeastern University with her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She taught in a Title 1 School for seven years.


The school started as a learn-and-play homeschool enrichment program with ten kids. Ten grew to over 30 the following year as WonderHere transitioned to a full-time school. “The whole goal when we started WonderHere was to make learning fun again – to preserve the joys of childhood. We believe in academic growth and progress, but we do it in a way that honors the whole child, that brings joy and spark into their whole learning experience,” said Zivkovich.


They started with the intention of being an urban school with a space downtown near the Polk Theatre. They had no green space but fenced in a parking lot where children could play. “We grew out of our downtown location, and then we started pursuing the farm,” said Zivkovich. Now on a sprawling ten-acre farm with a garden, farm animals, and plenty of space to run and play, WonderHere enters its eighth year. “This is a lot more green space than we ever dreamed of,” said Thenor.


The school was given several goats for the farm. With no idea how to care for the animals, they called in Karrie Tidlund, who has worked with animals and gardening her entire life. She has an associate degree in business administration, a Bachelor of Science degree in Integrative Studies, and 15 years of experience working with children. As the farm director, Tidlund leads programs, including Toddler Farm School, The Outdoor Classroom, and Wilderness Workshop.


Tidlund walked us through a shaded copse of trees they call “the woods,” where a cluster of kids were playing and exploring. We entered the garden at the back of the farm. “When we got this farm, it was just grass,” she said. “We’ve built this from the ground up, and the students have been a part of that.” Tidlund means that literally. Early on, students heaved wheelbarrows full of soil, compost, and woodchips to build out the garden that they now tend, with Tidlund’s help, of course.


“Every classroom in our schoolhouse has a garden bed. They’re learning to grow different things,” Tidlund said. “They weed it, they do pest control, they harvest it, they do the whole process.” Last fall, they installed a wildflower garden, planting flowers like zinnias, bluebells, and sunflowers.


The flowers will be a boon to the school as they’ll sell them on special Family Farm Days. The produce grown by the students also helps to support WonderHere as Tidlund sets up a booth to sell it at the Winter Haven Farmers Market a couple of times a month.


What do the kids benefit from all this open space and time playing in the dirt? “Fresh air,” said Tidlund. “Honestly, they’re just learning, and they’re able to interact with it differently. To know what a garden is and to put your hands in the dirt and experience it is another thing entirely.” She noted how excited the children were to see what had changed since their last time working in the garden. They also love to find caterpillars and butterflies among the milkweed.


“We don’t use chemicals in the garden, so the kids can pick and eat right from the garden,” Tidlund said. “That has gotten some kids to eat vegetables they have never been willing to eat before. […] I think that experience has done wonders for them to understand where their food comes from.”


“I had a great educational experience as a child, but I didn’t learn that kind of stuff,” said Zivkovich.



FREEDOM TO LEARN AND GROW

“Some of the biggest things we did differently when we left public school are that we don’t do letter grades, we don’t classify kids by grade level, and we don’t do standardized testing,” said Thenor. This means more flexibility for students and teachers alike. “Because we don’t isolate kids by their grade level, they have much more growth. They can grow as slowly or as quickly as it takes. They’re not compared to each other.”


WonderHere takes a gentle approach early on. “Traditional education puts such a huge emphasis on learning to read proficiently and write at the pre-K, kindergarten level. And if a kid is ready for it, that’s great. Most kids need time to grow their social and emotional wellness, their time to play, and time to explore without getting all this explicit direct instruction. Their brains just aren’t wired for that yet,” said Zivkovich.


As they attempted to find footing in this new terrain, the co-founders explored what they believed about children and education. Thenor and Zivkovich found much inspiration in the Finnish style of teaching. Digging into this method, they found that in Finland, compulsory education is started later than in the American school system, typically around age seven.


“We’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve found that those kids that we took a gentle approach with early on – they’re growing into just fine learners and wellrounded kids who are now in our older grades,” said Zivkovich.


As they enter year eight as an organization, WonderHere has alumni who are currently in high school – and they’re successful. These students have had roughly 75% less paper-and-pencil, sitting-in-a-desk instruction than their counterparts. “They’ve done a lot more digging in the dirt, drawing, creating, playing in the garden than most kids. But academically, they look the same on paper,” said Thenor. “There’s not as much merit as we’re led to believe that the number of hours we spend at a desk doing paperwork will equal the amount they’ve learned and retained. […] When they are developmentally ready, they will get the knowledge that they need.”


MORE MICROSCHOOLS COMING SOON

It’s always been in the co-owners’ hearts to share what they’ve learned the past eight years. Thenor likes to refer to their location as a research center for their ideas. Skilled and intuitive teachers are given the autonomy to try different learning methods, an opportunity not afforded to many public school educators. “They have been a really important sounding board as we’ve grown and developed,” Thenor said of their WonderHere instructors.


Over their tenure, the best friends feel that they’ve tested and honed in on a successful education style. “We’re getting to the point now that we want to create other microschools like WonderHere in other locations and empower other people to do the things we do,” said Thenor.


WonderHere recently received a grant from VELA, which, according to their website, “is the nation’s leading community of entrepreneurs providing alternatives to conventional schooling.”


Zivkovich said, “It really is the perfect time. There are so many people realizing that education can be done differently, and they feel the same urging that we felt to do our part to make the educational world a better place.”


WonderHere

5120 Colbert Rd, Lakeland

(863) 698-7782

FB: WonderHere

IG @wonderhere

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