Women, mothers in particular, don’t get much credit for their roles as pioneers — people who break ground in arts or sciences or stand their ground when it comes to protecting and helping the underprivileged or underrepresented. But California has its share of these role models: Julia Morgan, the state’s first female architect and designer of Hearst Castle; Clara Shortridge Foltz, the state’s first female attorney who raised five children mostly as a single mother and who championed voting rights for women, the idea of public defenders and after whom the Los Angeles Criminal Justice Center is named; and Olive M. Isbell, who traveled west by wagon train and is credited with being California’s first teacher. With these women in mind, we sought out inspiring mothers of today who find themselves on similar paths: Meghana Joshi, Katie Porter and Dr. Dustine Rey. Writer Jill Hamilton tells their stories.


“Everything we do here is intentional,” Dr. Dustine Rey, founder and executive director of The Gratitude Garden Preschool in San Clemente, said in the bright airy front office with cockatoos busily chirping and Bob Marley playing in the background.

She founded the school when she and her husband were looking for a preschool for their daughter, Satya.

“It’s what I wanted, and it didn’t exist yet,” she said. “I wanted a school that emphasized social and emotional growth, gratitude and resiliency, but also gave a really fun, playful and hands-on STEM experience.”

She drew on her 25 years of educational experience as a school counselor, and elementary and middle school teacher and her work as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. But it also came from her own uninspiring stint in the school system.

“I was pretty much checked out as a student,” she recalled. “I lost my interest in school starting around fourth grade. It became all about memorizing things and fitting in. It was kind of like being on an assembly line where we were all taught the same thing.”

Her different way of thinking is apparent throughout the school. Even though it’s a preschool with kids’ masterpieces and various mad scientist projects on display, the place has the feel of a yoga studio. It has wide clean floors, well-designed tiny chairs and a faint scent of something fresh.

“We’re a certified green school, so we don’t use any aerosols. Everything you smell is essential oils,” she said.

There are guinea pigs and birds in every room and in the large outdoor classroom, there are chickens and bunnies.

“We teach our child at a very young age to be gentle with our animal friends; how to be responsible and have a sense of duty for caring for our animals,” Rey said.

The kids take care of the chickens and take turns getting to decide what to do with the eggs.

“Getting the choice of what to do with eggs is a really big deal. They love it!” said Rey, who has to remind parents there may be real, uncooked eggs awaiting them in their child’s cubby.

There is yoga, music, art and a garden for the kids to tend. Recently they harvested the basil and each took home a fresh jar of pesto. It’s an indoor/outdoor school, so kids follow a rotation of 90 minutes inside, 90 minutes out. And even the inevitable playground dramas are part of the intention.

“Usually conflict happens out on the playground, and that’s a really good thing because that’s when they’re using their social skills and practicing what we’re teaching them,” she said.

“Their teachers stand back and watch to see if they’re able to manage the conflict like we’re teaching them. If they’re not, we’ll drop in and give them some skills, but we’re not going to solve it for them. We talk them through it.”

Flexibility is built into the curricula to follow the kids’ natural scientific curiosity. They play with electrical kits and learn coding. When the kids became fascinated with how a bike works, it led into their studies for the next month. They dissected a bike with tools, learning physics and mechanics in the process.

“Someone will say, ‘What makes it stay up?’ ‘Why do we have a chain?’ ‘Why can’t we take off the petals and instead put flippers?’ Those are all really good questions. Let’s try it out and see what happens. We’re always chasing their curiosity. The moment we lose their curiosity, we’ve lost them,” she said.

Rey found that gratitude can positively affect academic success.

“We can teach young people to have a grateful perspective; to be able to see the good in things,” she said. “And by that I mean see the good when things don’t go well. At our school, we celebrate challenges. In children’s lives, they’re always going to have adversity. And we want to teach them, ‘You know, there’s good in that. Find value in that.’”

Rey has incorporated the ideas of the school into her own life — following her curiosity, creating balance and embracing gratitude — and she has the lightness, joy and preternatural chill of someone who’s found a life philosophy that’s working.

Dr. Rey is an adjunct professor of educational psychology at Pepperdine University and the founder of The Gratitude Garden Preschool of San Clemente and TESLA Country Day. Please visit DrDustineRey.Com to connect with her.

Original: OC Family Magazine