The Riggs Blog

Austen Riggs Nursery School Year-End Celebration

It may have been a rainy day on Friday, June 13, 2014, but inside the Community Center at Riggs, hearts were full, gratitude was spoken and fourteen preschoolers, along with a room full of parents, caregivers, Riggs staff and patients celebrated the inaugural year of the newest incarnation of the Austen Riggs Nursery School

In 1955, Joan Erikson described the motivation for establishing a nursery school within a psychiatric setting as a way for patients to experience childhood as observers and as participants. Patients work as interns and teachers’ aides under the supervision of the school's director. For many years, the nursery school operated as a Montessori school under the direction of Paula Meade. When Paula retired in the spring of 2012, there was a void that would be difficult to fill. 

In the fall of 2013, under the direction of Ilana Ackerman, MSW, the nursery school was revived, reimagined and restored to a vibrant place for preschoolers and their teachers. At the year-end celebration, James Sacksteader, MD, Riggs medical director/CEO spoke of the “utterly unique and priceless opportunity” that the nursery school provides for patients at Riggs alongside the thoughtful learning opportunities for the children. 

Nursery School Director, Miss Ilana (as the preschoolers call her), visibly moved by the outpouring of support, related the story of how she came to be director and was effusive in her gratitude to Jane Bloom, PhD, RN, CS, director of patient services, Cara Williams, preschool teacher, the teachers’ aides (many of whom are patients at Riggs), parents of the preschoolers and many others.

Nursery school teacher, Miss Cara remarked on Erikson’s stages of development that served as a model for early childhood education and specifically referenced Erikson’s words about the importance of free play, “You see a child play, and it is so close to seeing an artist paint, for in play a child says things without uttering a word. You can see how he solves his problems. You can also see what's wrong. Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever's in them rises to the surface in free play.” 

A highlight of the celebration was watching and listening to the preschoolers perform several songs they had learned, followed by more heartfelt acknowledgements and appreciations. Then, much to the delight of everyone in the room, singer/songwriter David Grover performed a few songs to conclude the celebration. 

As we saw throughout the presentations at the recent Riggs-Yale Parenting Conference, there is a link between early adversity and childhood psychopathology that persists into adulthood. Likewise, in the absence of such adversity and with a supportive and caring environment early in life, such as that nurtured in the Austen Riggs Nursery School, children reap those benefits both in the moment and as they grow. 

On this day, the success of the 2013-14 year for the Austen Riggs Nursery School, while it was a success in its own right, was also emblematic of the best parts of this community at Riggs, working together, sharing strengths and resources to achieve a common goal.  

We are fortunate to have the Austen Riggs Nursery School as part of our Activities Program. For our patients, many of whom work as teachers’ aides, it gives them an opportunity to discover and share their strengths and to see childhood through the lens of the young children who attend the nursery school. For the children, it is an environment of shared learning, growth and exploration that will form a strong base upon which to build as they continue their education.

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