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Riggs Nursery School Holds Year-End Celebration Honoring Preschoolers

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by Aaron Beatty

Psychiatric hospitals and residential treatment centers do not generally have nursery schools on their campus. But at the Austen Riggs Center, there is a nursery school, not simply on the campus, but also as an integral part of the activities program, and larger community, which provides an opportunity for patients to take on the role of student, exploring their strengths and, for those who work as teachers’ aides in the nursery school, experience and learn about child development in a new way. 

Austen Riggs Nursery School Art ExhibitThe nursery school was part of the original thinking of Joan Erikson (spouse to Erik Erikson) to offer activities that would interest patients as learners and has been in operation since the 1950s.  The nursery school along with art, woodworking, ceramics, textiles and horticulture comprise today’s activities program at Riggs.  When patients engage in these programs, they take on the role of student and are taught, not by clinicians, but by professionals who make a living practicing their arts. Ilana Ackerman, MSW, is the director of the nursery school and under her leadership, the school thrives and even has a multi-year waiting list. 

This has been a year of growth for the nursery school; it expanded its curriculum and continued to reach out into the local community to enhance the learning of its students. While there were many highlights during the year, one such highlight came just a few weeks ago when the children participated in an art show and reception at the Lavender Door art gallery on Main Street in Stockbridge, where examples of their artistic talent hung on the gallery walls for all to see. 

To celebrate the end of the school year, the Austen Riggs nursery school held a graduation celebration on Friday, June 12; the sun was shining as parents, caregivers, families and supporters (many of them from the Riggs community) gathered under the shade of a large tent on the Riggs campus to reflect upon and celebrate the 2014-15 school year. 

Dr. James Sacksteder at the Riggs Nursery School graduation.The children set the mood for the event by filing in to the tent as they sang “Hello everybody….so glad to see you.” For the audience gathered around the bright floral centerpieces at their tables, it was they who were glad to see the children. 

Former Medical Director/CEO James Sacksteder, MD,  thanked parents for their trust and willingness to leave their children in the care of the nursery school and spoke of the important role the nursery school plays in the activities program at Riggs, remarking “it provides an extraordinarily rich learning experience for patients that is utterly unique.”  

Ilana Ackerman, MSW, Riggs Nursery School DirectorMiss Ilana (as the children call her), was gracious in her remarks thanking the multitude of people and resources that have helped to make the nursery school a success and reflected on the change she had seen in the children over the past year.  In referencing a quote from activities program founder, Joan Erikson: “You can't feel warmth unless you create it, can't feel delight until you play, can't know serendipity unless you risk.” Miss Ilana brought to the forefront the importance of the nursery school to both the children and their teachers and also the Riggs community as a whole. “We’ve learned we are grateful for each other” she said. 

Cara Williams, Riggs Nursery School TeacherThe celebration also included a speech by nursery school teacher Cara Williams (Miss Cara) and some very moving words by one of the teachers’ aides. Then, donning rabbit ears and a “carrot” on a string, the nursery school children treated the audience to a few songs, later receiving a small gift and certificate and then joining their parents for some well-deserved refreshments. 

While this was a celebration honoring the children, it also provided an occasion to reflect on the hard work of the teachers, teachers’ aides, parents, caregivers and supporters and demonstrated the difference this nursery school has made (and continues to make) in the lives of Riggs patients and the important contribution of the nursery school to the activities program, the Riggs community and the broader local community.

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