Tiny hands clutched a watering can as it tilted towards freshly planted seeds. Toddlers crouched to be eye-level with the earth, staring at the plants in front of them. “My family gave us that one,” said Jack Housner, pointing to hot pink and white pinwheel flowers. Jack’s friends gathered around him, each reaching out to touch the blossom’s soft petals.
“Who loves our garden?” asked Laurie Petroske, director of Little People Child Care and Nursery School in Sea Cliff. Each child smiled and joyfully shouted, “I do!”
Petroske, a Sea Cliff resident and the president of North Shore School District’s Before/After School Child Care, founded Little People in 1992 when her son was one. “I worked in sales at Liz Claiborne and the long hours prevented me from spending time with my son,” Petroske said. “I had a degree in education, so I left sales and started the daycare center for him.”
Since then, Little People has become a household name on the North Shore and is loved by children and families throughout the district. “Little People to me is an extended family,” said Lindsay Novellano, a parent. “The teachers and staff are warm, and the children make friendships that last through elementary school.”
Petroske is always searching for unique activities to enrich children’s education, and after two decades of looking at the barren dirt patch next to Little People, she made it her mission to transform the “blank canvas” into something beautiful. “I reached out to families and friends, asking them to donate plants,” she said, “and I got a fantastic response.”
Within days, residents were dropping off plants at Little People’s doorstep. The children were excited to get their hands dirty, and Petroske couldn’t wait to teach the kids about nature and the importance of giving back to the community.
“Every day, the children and I plant and get out our watering cans,” Petroske said. “As we go, I teach them about the lifecycle of the flowers, the bees and butterflies, and the sun.”
Despite their young ages, the children are fascinated with the science behind their garden, which allows Petroske to discuss the interactions between humans and the environment. “You know kids, they’ll run outside and pick all of the leaves off the flowers,” Petroske said. “But we stop them and help them realize that ‘Oh wait! That hurts the plant, and we need the plant because it gives us oxygen to breathe.’”
Suzanne Cohen, whose children attend Little People, said she greatly appreciates how the garden has added to their education. “I think taking care of anything helps them to learn responsibility, develop greater independence, and most importantly, confidence,” Cohen said. She believes that having her children learn outside of the classroom enhances their senses and makes them more aware of the outdoors.
As they worked and weeded Petroske told the children the garden would help benefit their community as well as the earth. “It’s important to teach children to volunteer and build something they are proud of,” she emphasized. “Our garden will thrive for years to come, and the children will flourish alongside of it.”