Hamstead and Highgate Express

9 August 2003

Hamstead and Highgate Express


http://www.hamhigh.co.uk/archived/2003/0808/news/asp/p3col1.asp

Love is the word at a nursery to the stars

Wacky or wonderful? Carmen Lichi visits the pre-school which teaches happiness. editorial@hamhigh.co.uk

A GROUP of children wearing purple smocks sit outside their nursery, drinking milk and eating biscuits.

Guided by their teacher, they begin to chant a chorus: “Every action has a reaction; every action has a reaction.”

“So if I blow you a kiss, what do you do?” asks the teacher. A resounding answer emerges: “Blow you a kiss back” and half a dozen kisses are blown into the Primrose Hill air.

Inside, the soothing sound of pan pipes plays in the background, while the gentle waft of aromatherapy oil comes from some nearby play dough.

On the wall, hangs a picture frame with four words: Truthfulness; Harmlessness; Never Careless and Magnanimity.

It would be easy to dismiss St Mark’s Square Nursery, in St Mark Gardens, as a hippy dippy service for the wealthy bohemians, artists and musicians that reside in its leafy enclaves (parents include Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher, and actresses Kate Winslet and Thandie Newton).

But as the £3,100 a year pre-school – thought to be the only one of its kind in the world – gears up for its 20th anniversary on September 15, it seems evident that founder and headteacher Sheema Parsons is as committed to her vocation now as she was when she started the nursery back in 1983.

Back then, she was a disillusioned but idealistic primary school teacher, who had had enough of trying to teach classes of 36 children.

But with the help of her adoptive father, and the support of the then St Mark’s vicar Tom Devonshire-Jones, her dreams became reality as the school was born in the church basement.

The two- to six-year-olds come for sessions from 9am to 12pm, from 1.30pm to 3.30pm or for both.

A typical day’s activity includes cooking, free play – where children can do what they want – and creative play, where arts and crafts are encouraged.

There are eight teachers to 28 pupils and lessons include art, violin, ballet, yoga and daily milk and biscuit session, where children are encouraged to talk about their dreams and listen to stories.

An introduction to French takes place through play – with teachers peppering story time with words to familiarise the youngsters with vocabulary.

The recent addition to the syllabus of optional daily meditation has seen a flurry of interest. Known as Words of Wisdom, the session is taught by Hampstead-based Transcendental Meditation teacher Lesley Kirk.

Children and parents hold hands as they walk around the church garden, silently saying their individual “word”, chosen for them by Ms Kirk.

But Ms Parsons stresses that the activity is optional and is never done without parental participation. A book filled with testaments of children who have taken part is filled with praise. One says: “Word of Wisdom makes me feel kind and happy and like a polar bear.” Another proclaims: “My meditation makes me feel kind and loving and kissing.”

Over the years, word of mouth recommendations and press reports have seen its reputation grow to the extent that prospective parents now come to visit the school from as far away as Finland and Hungary.

But Ms Parsons is as choosy about her parents as she is about her teachers: “I go completely on instinct,” she says. “It took me a year to find my new teacher, Nectar, who is starting here in September. “With parents it’s the same. I will interview them for as long as it takes for me to feel happy that they are right for St Mark’s.”

The uniform is a purple smock designed by Ms Parsons “so that there’s no difference between boys and girls and so that people don’t subconsciously encourage the boys to play with Lego or the girls to paint”.

Ms Parsons encourages trips to art exhibitions at major galleries as well as to the theatre and even the opera. But she hits back at detractors and cynics, adding: “There’s nothing wacky about it. “It is based on the philosophy that work is love made visible. “I’m a giver in life, I want to help make happiness and I want every child to be happy.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is to teach children to be decent and kind, and to treat everyone with respect, whether they are a beggar or a queen.

“That’s far more important than two plus two equal four.”

For more information contact St Mark’s Nursery on 020-7485 9012

Coypright 2003 Hampstead and Highgate Express