Nothing but the Nest // Island Montessori Is Nurturing Students’ Minds, Bodies and Souls

By Connie Bye

Janice Pedersen likes to say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.

That’s why coats, boots and hats are always close at hand for her students at Hazel Creek Montessori, the preschool she founded with husband Ollie Pedersen. No matter the weather, children can play outside, hike and explore the 10-acre property and nearby trails.

“Rain or shine, my son is out in nature,” said Aly Vander Stoep, whose 5-year-old is a Hazel Creek student. “It’s an incredible asset for him.”

Janice and Ollie—who met while teaching transcendental meditation and were married on the island in 1977—bought the first five acres for the school in 1989. Their house perches on a hillside overlooking the campus. The name honors Ollie’s grandmother, Hazel, who taught at a one-room school in Norway.

“We logged and used the trees to build the school,” Janice said. “It was like a homesteading process.” Their four children helped clear brush and paint fences; their son, then 9, chopped wood.

The original building opened in 1990 with 16 students, she said. Today, other buildings dot the campus, and 100 children usually are enrolled.

“People are moving [to Bainbridge] from Seattle in droves,” she said. “We have a waiting list of over a year in some classes.”

When Vander Stoep’s family moved in August from West Seattle, her son, Ami, was put on a waiting list, but a spot soon opened. She was impressed with the welcome her son received that instantly put him at ease. “We dropped by one morning and met Janice in the main office. She gave him a huge hug and said, ‘We have been waiting for you.’”

In addition to toddler and preschool classes, Hazel Creek offers after-school care for children up to age 12, summer camp and more. Back when Janice was planning the school, she knew she wanted Montessori instruction. Her children had attended a Montessori school and she “fell in love with the philosophy, the way it taught children to be independent and hands-on.”

But she didn’t want learning to be limited to a classroom. She tapped into her upbringing on a Montana ranch and made the most of the surroundings.

Students typically spend 30 to 50 percent of their time outdoors, sometimes more, Pedersen said. “Children need free play, unstructured time where they are not being guided, in order to find their own creativity and an awareness of the world around them.”

For former Hazel Creek student Piper Milton, a treasured memory is walking to Miegs Park with other children, “singing songs, eating lemon drops, and playing hide and seek in forest and glens.” More than 20 years later, she remains friends with some Hazel Creek classmates, she said via email.

On the Hazel Creek property, an assortment of animals gives kids another way to connect with nature as well as an understanding of the cycle of life. Dogs and cats are a constant. “We’ve hatched ducks, geese and chickens; we’ve had sheep,” said Janice.

And then there are the horses. First came Clydesdales and miniature horses. Today, children enjoy riding horses in the arena, added in 2000. An indoor pool opened in 2001.

“Kids who are 2 start riding,” she said. “At 2½, they start swimming. They can hike two miles at 2½. It all builds a can do attitude, a sense of self and self-worth.”

Milton, who turns 26 in June, is a lecturer in the art and art history department at Sacramento City College. She plans to apply for doctorate programs this fall to pursue further humanities studies.

“The setting, the Montessori educational method and, of course, the Pedersen family helped to create a very special and very magical place and time for me that I believe had a direct impact on my interest in the arts,” Milton said.

It’s vital for children and adults to be able to “draw on that thread of people who knew them, nurtured them,” Pedersen said. “That bond is so tender, so sweet.” A key element of that bond for Hazel Creek kids is Ollie Pedersen, who grew up on Bainbridge. “Ollie is the rock star; he drives the tractor,” Janice said. “He’s a grandpa figure to the kids, a male figure, a caretaker.”

Beginning in June, Brett Miguel, who is engaged to the Pedersons’ son Adam, will help run the school. This will leave Janice and Ollie with more time for travel, but they have no plans to retire.

Taking care of children is a privilege, Ollie said, and “really the most wonderful profession you can be involved with.” Rain or shine.