Learning to Love the Wonders of Nature with Miss Donna

Donna Ward (AKA Miss Donna)

Miss Donna is a former middle and high school teacher who began Miss Donna's Place nearly two decades ago to create a create an atmosphere of curiosity and appreciation for nature for Hingham's young children. Through nature, art, and exploration, Miss Donna's Place is an environment that fosters the total child through a commitment to the hands, heart, and head of each child.

Instead of The Anchor trying to tell you more about Miss Donna, we decided to let you hear it from those who know her best...the parents and students to whom she has dedicated her life.

“I love Miss Donna because she teaches me about animals and we got to babysit a baby bunny and the fairs are really fun with really good prizes.” -Wills Elefante (Age 6) , Miss Donna's Place student

“I love Miss Donna because one time we got ice cream there and I like to go in her van to fun places like the river.” - Blake Elefante (Age 3.5), Miss Donna's Place student

"The creative approach that she takes with traditional (and sometimes untraditional) subject matter makes learning fun and has helped my children love going to school. Every week, the children learn a different letter.  They bring in show & tell items associated with that letter, identify the letter on scavenger hunt nature walks and by spinning a letter "wheel of fortune," and make an art project that goes into an ABC book presented at the end of the year.  My children may also know more about nature, the circle of life, our seasons and local vegetation than I do at this point!

Beyond the unparalleled learning and creativity that is infused in her program, I am constantly WOWed at how Miss Donna supports the families of Hingham. Her program is designed for working families and it is not unusual for her to host children at her home from dawn to dusk to accommodate the crazy working schedules of parents.  Miss Donna consistently goes above and beyond to support the families of our community during some of their most difficult times- I've seen her step up for families going through tragedies/emergencies and squeeze kids into open spots in her program when families need the extra help and kids need the extra love. I am also nearly certain that she also hosts events to raise money for scholarships to her program to help families afford childcare during the expensive preschool years. " Miss Donna's Place parent, Brooke Brown

Hingham, meet Miss Donna. 

Tell us about your philosophy to childhood education and development and how it has, or hasn't evolved over the past 18 years. What do you hope children take away from their experience at Miss Donnas?

I believe that all children should have the experience of discovering nature in the most natural, curiosity-driven and unconditional way. If children do not have a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature, they themselves will not be able to appreciate what the natural world offers to their spirit and their development. I believe that the freedom to explore and play in an outdoor environment helps to develop their senses and is essential for a child’s healthy growth and expansion. My goal is to offer a rich open environment that continuously presents alternative choices for creative engagement. My 9-acre property is a gift,  and every workable space I have I’ve devoted to creating and nurturing a different developmental milestone by tapping into the child’s heart, intellect, creativity, and emotional development. From fairy and gnome home building, secret gardens to ropes courses and caring for the animals; the growth and personal accomplishments that are nurtured is astounding.

My program also taps into the creative artistic side of each child by creating an ABC art book that is compiled throughout the year and brought home upon its completion. I believe that through art many of the traditional pre-kindergarten readiness skills can be mastered in a “whole child” fashion, as opposed to focusing on individual skills that work sheets often try to do.  The disconnect that I often notice now with children not having the availability to experience nature as it is meant to be, has shown itself to be increasingly more present in children with anxiety, attention disorders, internal self-regulation problems, and an increasing alarming lack of interest and care of the natural world … and one does not have to guess where that will lead us to.

What I hope children take away from Miss Donna's Place is an appreciation for nature, and how the circle of life and understanding of it is such an integral part of creating a world that we can all enjoy and thrive from.

Tell us how you uniquely combine magic and fantasy (ex: fairies & gnomes that leave treats for the kids and visit the children at their homes) with science and nature (ex. hard facts about lifecycle, ecosystem, etc.)?  Are they ever at odds?

It is such a small window of time where children’s imagination, curiosity, and belief in things beyond themselves can be nurtured in such a way to have profound impacts to their social, emotional and spiritual development. To believe that fairies and gnomes live on my property, and to interact with them in such simplistic altruistic ways, allows for heartfelt emotional connections that can only be translated into magical moments. We care for, communicate with, and share an ongoing relationship with them. Many of the native plants and animals the children learn about are brought to life with stories having to do with their relationship to the gnomes and fairies. There is no better way to teach children about Golden Rod or Purple Loosestrife, etc. than to make the connection to how gnomes and fairies use these native plants for their medicines and healing.  I am always surprised at how children remember these native plants because of the simple relationship, which is communicated through our stories along our nature trail walks.

There’s so much to be learned on the property about the cycles of life, from the praying mantis laying their eggs and watching them winter over on the nature trail, to the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to butterfly, and even the rare occurrence of a missing chicken and the children tracking down the clues, which might give us insight as to who the predator was.  Children are fascinated with the life and death cycles of nature and there’s no better way for them to experience these lessons than in our own backyards.

The communication and relationships between the children and the fairies or gnomes teach a tremendous lesson in compassion, caring, and feeling the beauty of making a difference at such a young age. To walk on our nature trail bearing baskets of acorns and nuts that we have collected to give to the fairies and gnomes is an experience that watching as an adult leaves me with hope and belief that this next generation of children will have the understanding of what is necessary to find and have purpose in life.

This time is critical for a child’s development and whatever I can do to help bridge an understanding between the natural world, the magical world, and the child is a key component to develop the qualities that we all strive for in adulthood. They are giving, loving, curious, fascinated persons whom are wonderful to be with and the longer we can keep this with them, I believe the better humans they will become.

Describe your backyard and how you care for, and maintain what seems like your very own ecosystem?  (goats, bunnies, chickens and acres of nature trails, ropes courses, jumping gardens, fairy gardens, gnomes, etc.)

The maintenance of my yard and property is a daily and ongoing endeavor.  The children gain so much from seeing and participating in the daily chores that are necessary each and every day. They help feed, water, and care for the goats, bunnies, and chickens.

Filling bird feeders and maintaining areas of play are all responsibilities the children whole-heartedly participate in. The sense of purpose and community that they experience in the process brings such confidence and purpose to their world.

I am always amazed at how eager the children are in wanting to help me rake the soil for garden plants, move brush and sticks for creating new play spaces, feed the animals, or collecting eggs or fallen pine cones for gnomes and fairy homes. The outdoors has no boundaries to what each child can experience or gain in their own due time. My intention and goal is to keep children outside as much as possible by creating an atmosphere through my nature trails, rope courses, jumping gardens, fairy gardens, gnome homes, the mud kitchen, secret gardens, and discovering and building their own secret fairy home. The children’s imaginations are endless and truly magical to witness during play.

Your van is often described as "the next best thing to Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus." Tell us how the van got started and your favorite adventures to take the kids?

My van may be described as the next best thing to Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus and I love the fact that my children enjoy the adventures we take. Often our adventures are spontaneously driven by daily weather or the knowledge of ‘what’s’ happening on any given day at our favorite spots that we explore.  Every year I am surprised by how many children that haven’t had the experience of touching a frog, holding a salamander, seeing a snapping turtle or painted turtle up close. It should be a right of passage for all children to experience these wonders of nature. Without understanding and appreciating our natural world there will be little to no investment in protecting it. Just observing the seasonal changes brings such joy and appreciation to what our community has to offer.

Without the vans, the children would not get the opportunity to take these adventures. The vans also allow me to help parents with pick-up and or drop-off of their children from other Hingham school programs. My after school program for school aged kids gives working parents options for keeping their kids outside and enjoying nature since we can pick kids up directly up from all of the elementary schools in Hingham.

Tell us about your favorite traditions at Miss Donna's Place and how they got started?  (ex: Spirit Fairy, Carnival, etc.)

My favorite tradition is the annual Spirit Fairy Naming Ceremony we hold before the December holiday break. It is a special celebration for children and families to come together and share each child’s fairy and it’s purpose in life, prior to bringing them home. The event got started by recognizing that all children have an innate desire to play with the most simplest of objects and that by merely starting with a set of sticks they found on a nature walk, they can create through their imagination something so personal and meaningful to them, that it actually becomes a cherished friend for years to come.

The children all make their own spirit fairy, which is created from sticks and clay and many other objects we find in nature.  Once the spirit fairy receives its heart, it is then embellished with whatever the child’s imagination and creativity desires.  Almost all of them are symbols of each child’s own unique connection to nature, or an animal or personal passion.  Every fairy is special and unique with it’s own purpose and special meaning to that child. The children name their fairies and individually present them to their families and classmates in this unique ceremony.

Spirit Fairies are a special reminder that we all need to stay connected to our natural world. It’s truly remarkable and heartwarming to run into some of my older students around town who tell me they still have their fairy that they made at Miss Donna's Place all those years ago.

What is your favorite spot in Hingham?

I don’t have a favorite spot in Hingham, as there are so many places I share with the children that each offers their own special unique gifts. Every season brings it’s own treasures. There are many different habitats, ponds, streams, forests, beaches and fields that the children and I thrive from.  Our community, however, offers a tremendous variety of places where one can find and experience what I believe to be first encounters for children’s discoveries.

In early June, I love to invite families to an early morning 6am encounter of snapping turtles laying eggs by Brewers Pond. Every year multiple nests are laid, only to be eaten within days by predators. Miss Donna’s children have been rescuing at least one nest site a year and allowing the eggs to mature in our own home sanctuary so that in September we can watch the young turtles hatch and then release them back to the pond in early fall. We have been doing this for years.  I also love salamander hunting (not literally) in Wompatuck State Park, or collecting the many varieties of mosses for projects and gnome homes. We are so fortunate to have so many ecosystems within our town and I love sharing these places with children and their families.

When presented with two options, when did you make a choice that totally changed the course of your life?

I realized after the first several years of running Miss Donna's Place out of the home I raised my 5 children in that I needed to move in order to expand and offer a program that was able to grow with my own personal philosophies.  When I purchased my property at 4 Cushing Street, which is the current location of Miss Donna's Place, I knew this 9-acre property with wetlands, a tennis court, and abundant spaces to grow and expand was the perfect choice to have made.

It has now been 12 years at this location and it has grown to see the development of mud kitchens, ropes courses, fairy gardens, expansive nature trails with boardwalks, farm animals, jumping gardens, vegetable gardens and has many more opportunities and space to grow. The next area that I want to create will be a woodworking area where children can create and build simple projects.

What do you hope children take away from their experience at Miss Donnas?

I hope when children leave my program, they are more confident, self aware, and appreciative for what nature and themselves have to offer. I want them to feel comfortable in the woods and have a heightened appreciation for our planet and the delicate balance that is at stake. I want them to know that they can make a difference through their own habits and choices as they move through their own lives.

Your program seems to run from dawn to dusk all year long with camp running in the summer.  When do you find time to relax and recharge and what do you do?

My work allows me to do many of the things working people consider relaxing and recharging. I’m fortunate enough to be able to share these activities with my students on a daily basis, such as working in my yard/garden, creativity through art and hobbies, going for walks in nature, beach combing and crab hunting, etc.  When my days and weeks are done, I enjoy my grandchildren and family, riding my bike, a great yoga class, just reading a book, visiting and socializing with friends, and of course, travel.

If you could give children in Hingham one piece of advice, what would it be?

My one piece of advice for any child would be to stay outdoors as much as possible.

Find a peaceful place or find solace in the wonders of what nature has to offer.  Build forts, climb trees, get muddy, collect bugs and rocks. Mother nature has the capacity to teach us so much if we just turn off the technology and listen to what she has to say.

One of my favorite quotes is from a naturalist named Rachel Carelson:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

One of my greatest fears is that our children and grandchildren will not have the opportunity to experience nature as we do now, because it will just simply no longer exist for them.

Will someone carry on the tradition of Miss Donna's Place when you retire, which we hope you never do?

I have no current plan of retiring, as this truly is my passion in life and I don’t know what I would do without it.  As long as my body is able, I plan to do what I love, which is to be here with the children and sharing nature with them. Since I have been running Miss Donna's Place, I feel a profound connection to my program and that my true spirit and intention in life has been met. I feel very fortunate to have found the niche that I was meant to give to this world.

My undergraduate degree in teaching, with a concentration in biology, has allowed me to offer the natural world to children in its most simplistic and precious way while giving guidance and service to both the child and the planet.  My Masters degree in therapy and counseling has also been a great bridge to help children with anxieties and insecurities, which if left unresolved could have traumatic effects with their many life transitions ahead.

There is nothing like the outdoors to help facilitate, stimulate and guide ones inner spirit and for the well being of all our children to explore, be curious and get dirty while learning.  I believe and have seen the magical benefits of the environment that Miss Donna’s Place offers and I’m so grateful to have shared each and every one of these experiences with the children I’ve taught. I don’t foresee myself giving up until my body is not able or people are no longer there to share in my philosophy and beliefs.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Wonders of Nature with Miss Donna”

  1. Miss Donnas is the best! I admire her dedication, spirit, and her true love for the children of Hingham!
    Miss Bernie


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