Janene Ping has been an early childhood educator at Hawthorne Valley for almost 30 years. She had always been drawn to teaching and found her calling working with young children.
“Early Childhood is a time when the children are so open and joyful,” she says. “They need loving guidance and protection, and there’s lots of magic.”
A California native, Janene first came to Hawthorne Valley in the 1980s. At the time, she and her husband Martin were caretaking a farm in Greene County and were looking for a doctor to do a home birth for their second child. That led them to Dr. Phillip Incao, who had a practice adjacent to Hawthorne Valley Farm. Janene was struck by the beauty of the valley, and the community here. She began reading more about the works of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf Education.
“The values that I learned through my studies aligned with my own,” she says. “To find a community that resonated with so many ideas and ways of life that are meaningful for me is something I’m ever grateful for.”
Janene and her family soon relocated to closer to Harlemville, and both of her children attended to Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School from kindergarten through 12th grade.
When Janene’s youngest child started first grade, there was an opportunity for her to pursue her interest in teaching by assisting in the school’s kindergarten with one of its founding teachers, Astrid Barnes. She simultaneously completed her degree in Early Childhood Waldorf Education at Sunbridge Institute, and eventually became the lead teacher for one of the kindergarten classes.
In her role, Janene leads her class through a daily rhythm of songs, verse, games, practical tasks, free play, and exploration in the forest and on the farm. She believes it is essential for the young child to be in nature, and fully utilizes the many rich opportunities the valley offers for students to learn about the elements, seasons, and the interdependence of living beings. While reading is not formally introduced in the Waldorf early childhood curriculum, many of the games, songs, and poems learned help children develop phonemic awareness.
“We lay the groundwork for reading and writing through circle time and songs,” Janene says. “We also use handwork and the arts to help children gain a sense of aesthetic as well as fine motor skills.”
In addition to her work in the Kindergarten, Janene devotes many hours to the art of puppetry.
“I’m very interested in how we learn through stories,” she says. “Stories teach the complexities of what it means to be human, through them we can step into another’s shoes. The children begin to understand diversity and at the same time what we all universally share. Puppetry is a vehicle to portray images that carry those teachings, and it resonates naturally with children.”
Janene started a troupe called The Magical Puppet Tree in 1992, and since then she has made over 300 puppets out of plant-dyed silks and has adapted over 75 stories to puppetry, performing many of them multiple times. Most puppet shows are offered as part of HVS’s festivals, but occasionally, Janene performs at conferences. She also leads The Acorn Players student troupe, made up of children ages 9 and up from Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School, in creating one or two puppet shows each school year.
In recent years, Janene has begun sharing out her knowledge and experience of early childhood and puppetry. She is the Associate Director at Sophia’s Hearth in Keene, NH. She also teaches classes in the Early Childhood program of Hawthorne Valley’s Alkion Center for Adult Education, and leads workshops at the annual WECAN conference for early childhood educators.
Even after so many years in the Morningstar Kindergarten, Janene never wearies of her work.
“I still have so much to learn,” she says. “And the children are our teachers. You can learn a lot about our culture from watching the children, and that helps us as educators to grow in order to meet their needs.”