At Cuvilly Arts & Earth Center in Ipswich, you’ll find preschool and kindergarten students learning letters and how to count, but they’re not doing it by sitting at desks all day, practicing rote memorization and repetition. Instead, they’re likely to be crouched on a wooded path, making a letter “A” in the sand with a stick, practicing fine motor skills by collecting and sorting the pebbles they find on the ground, and counting the still-warm eggs that they’ve just gathered from the chicken coop.
“It’s an opportunity to create a learning environment where the children can experience firsthand the richness and diversity of the created world and come to know it and love it so that they grow up taking care of it and honoring it,” says Cuvilly’s executive director and founder, Sister Pat Rolinger.
Cuvilly Arts & Earth Center is a ministry of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and sits on about 12 acres of bucolic land that’s part of an even larger, 170-acre property that belongs to the Sisters. “The campus is our extended classroom,” Rolinger says.
The school, housed in a converted dairy barn, is surrounded by woods, fields, and hills that overlook the ocean. There’s a pond, farm animals like goats, chickens, and pigs, and organic gardens that the children plant, tend, harvest, and eventually eat from.
“It’s kind of amazing what you can get a child to try if they had a hand in planting, caring for, or harvesting it,” says Kate Dwyer, Cuvilly’s school coordinator. “My biggest success was pumpkin soup…kids were begging me to give their parents the recipe. Every single child tried the soup, and I only had a few ‘yucks.’”
The school serves children from the ages of 2 years 9 months through kindergarten with a variety of programs, plus summer programs. Beth Pitner of Ipswich sent her three children to Cuvilly for a combined seven years; her youngest, five-year-old Addie, just graduated.
Pitner says her children gained so much from their years at Cuvilly, from learning how to take care of plants and animals to developing an appreciation for the natural world, to understanding how they can find respite in nature during tough times.
“To calm themselves down or get centered, they can go outside, and I think they got a lot of that from being at Cuvilly,” she says.
She also believes that the calming, grounding influence of being connected with nature has helped her children with academics, especially when they moved on to a more traditional school. She says they were ready to do the learning of elementary school without feeling the pressure and intensity that’s increasingly more common even among the youngest kids.
“I think it gave them a good base, and there’s time for all that sitting,” she says. “It came too fast. I wish they could’ve stayed at Cuvilly a lot longer.”
Cuvilly’s influence also extends to the rest of the Pitner family. She says her kids regularly remind her to recycle something that she might be about to throw away. With great thanks to Cuvilly, the kids are conscious of the natural world and want to take care of it.
“I think it made it part of our conversation all the time,” she says. “They love to be outside. They want to go out, they want to dig and explore, they want to help us in the garden at home. They are conscious of things in the community. It becomes something that we talk about a lot as a family and do.”
Being conscious of the community is more than just a byproduct of being part of Cuvilly. It’s also part of the school’s philosophy, and something it lives through efforts like its Three Sisters Garden Project, a community farm that’s now in its second year of production. The farm has a nearly 150-member CSA, donates some of its bounty to local hunger relief, and operates as a place for teaching sustainable agriculture and food justice.
“It’s a project…that most likely will take on a life of its own in the future. The purpose is to create an ecological, economic, and socially sustainable community,” Rolinger says. “We want this farm to be inclusive of all citizens.”
Cuvilly’s work also extends beyond the local community and into the wider world. The school works with the Ipswich-based charity Partners in Development to support two students in Haiti, helping to pay for things like medicine, food, and schooling. Cuvilly also incorporates Haiti into its curriculum, even putting away the school’s manmade toys for a time to encourage the kids to get creative and make their own playthings with recyclable materials.
“It gives us an opportunity to really talk to these children about how much they have,” Dwyer says. It also encourages “imagination and problem solving.”
The point isn’t to teach that kids in Haiti are “poor,” since “poor” is so often a derogatory term, she adds. It’s to show the Cuvilly students that kids in Haiti are like them in most ways—they have joy, fun, families, and religion—but have fewer material things.
The idea that we share the Earth is at the heart of everything the students learn at Cuvilly, from caring for plants and animals, to understanding how we fit into the larger ecosystem and world. Rolinger says she wants children to understand that there’s a diversity of life on this planet. We care for it, and it also cares for us, from the food we eat to the air we breathe.
“All life is sacred,” Rolinger says.
Although days at Cuvilly do have a rhythm and some structure, often activities are child and nature-led. Who knows what will happen or how the day will change if a toad crosses their path in the woods? Rolinger doesn’t like the idea of separating learning from play; for children, they’re one and the same. Developing imagination is as crucial as learning the alphabet.
“Without an imagination we’re never going to solve our problems,” she says. “If we don’t provide the kids that freedom to explore and to imagine, how are they going to wrestle with all the others things they need creative solutions for?”
Cuvilly Arts & Earth Center?
10 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich