Preschool in Paradise

One of our prerequisites for a place to live in Nayarit, Mexico was a good preschool for Maya. Initially, we thought we had that covered when our plan was to live in Sayulita, which has a great bilingual school all the way up to grade 9. But when the high cost of living and other factors led us to look elsewhere, we weren’t sure where to turn. Our first impulse was to check out neighboring San Pancho, which also has a good school and is a great town. But the beach there isn’t very kid-friendly, and again our budget would be stretched too thin for comfort. With Sayulita and San Pancho out of the running, where would we go?

Maya and her teachers and classmates at El Jardín

We had never heard of Chacala until one of my friends back home suggested we check it out. She had recently returned from a week at Mar de Jade, a retreat center and resort on the south edge of town. During her stay, she toured the new El Jardín School – a nonprofit community school established by the founders of Mar de Jade. She described the school as “magical.” From the little information we could find online, the school looked good and the beach was obviously lovely. So, based on my friend’s recommendation and our minimal research, we decided to go for it and put a deposit down on a 6-month rental one block from the school. It was a gamble since we had never seen the school or town first hand.

Now, three months in, we can confirm that the school (and town – see my previous post) truly is magical. We love Chacala, but El Jardín is the real reason we are here and the reason we are staying as long as we are.

Maya and her classmate conduct a volcano experiment!

Initially, we were all a bit nervous at the start of school. A part of me felt like a terrible mother, dropping my kid into a new school in a new country where she didn’t speak the language. That would be a shock to the system for anyone, let alone a 3-year-old. But much to her credit (certainly not mine, I was a wreck the first few days), Maya took to her new surroundings like a champ. The first morning, she shed some tears, but by the afternoon, she was participating and having fun. We have proof: the school director showed us several photos of her laughing and playing. 🙂

For Maya, school was a welcome change after spending 24/7 with her overbearing parents on our epic, two-month road trip through Baja. Still to this day, she looks forward to going to school every morning. And why wouldn’t she? At El Jardín, she gets to sing, dance, paint, draw, cook, play, listen to stories, practice her numbers and letters and even do yoga and karate. Sounds like an awesome school day to me, one that in the U.S. would cost a fortune. Our tuition here is far less than what we pay for preschool in Colorado, and our fees help offset costs for local kids to attend.

Students explore El Rancho organic farm

Maya’s two preschool teachers are certified in Montessori and Waldorf teaching techniques, and each day’s activities are split between the two styles of instruction. There is a full time cook who prepares healthy and homemade meals for the kids every day. Fresh bread, fruit and vegetables are always on the menu. Much of the food is grown on Mar de Jade’s offsite organic farm, El Rancho. We were lucky to join the kids on a tour of the farm last week (see the slideshow below). The abundance of delicious food growing at El Rancho is astonishing, including tropical fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, limes and pineapple, plus a plethora of veggies and staples including lettuce, kale, carrots, beets, tomatoes, jicama, beans and even fresh eggs from the 400 chickens kept on site.

Maya and one of her beloved teachers, Mimi

And did I mention the amazing teacher-to-student ratio? It’s 1:9 in the preschool, and 1:6 in the combined kindergarten through 4th grade class. There are a total of 31 students at the school this year, 18 in the preschool and 13 in K-4. Maya’s preschool teachers are two of the most loving, gentle, and committed people I have ever met. After only a few weeks in school, Maya told us she loves her teachers. She gives them huge hugs every time she sees them – in school and out. 🙂

After school, Maya lingers on the playground begging to stay so she can swing on the swing set and hang out with her friends just a little bit more. After school (the school day goes from 8am to 1:30pm), we often arrange for play dates with her friends at the beach or pool to tie her over until the next day. Over the Christmas holiday when school was closed for two and a half weeks, she kept asking when she could go back to school again. Clearly, there is some magic going on at El Jardín.

I was particularly nervous about Maya’s ability to thrive at the school given the language barrier. She speaks no Spanish, and her teachers speak very little English. However, it hasn’t been a major issue. There are 4-5 other kids in her class that speak both Spanish and English, plus she’s familiar with the Montessori curriculum since she went to our neighborhood Montessori school in Colorado prior to this one. (Thanks, Louisville Montessori for preparing her so well!) She is also starting to absorb the language. She is constantly integrating Spanish into her everyday conversations, and has even developed her own version of the language that she speaks and sings practically nonstop while she is playing on her own. Check out this video of Maya having a conversation in “Spanish” with her toy parrot.

Brian teaches Maya’s class about volcanoes!

Not only has the school been a great outlet for Maya, but for us as well. Brian has been able to apply his teaching skills, and has led classes on volcanoes for all the students, and basketball drills for the older kids. I am helping out with school fundraising activities – such as organizing raffles and my personal venture of making and selling homemade pickles (“Paradise Pickles”) at our local Saturday market. (Even with all the amazing food in Mexico, we gringos still crave our pickles, which are nearly impossible to find in rural Mexico!)

El Jardín held a community peace parade to honor Revolution Day

We have also made some incredible new friends among the staff and parents of El Jardín. The school community is a nice mix of local and visiting families, so by connecting with the school, you really connect with whole Chacala community. El Jardín welcomes visiting students and families throughout the year. This year, there is a family from Tennessee with a 10-year-old boy, and a family from Alaska with a 5-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter attending school along with Maya. Last year, there was a visiting family from Oregon with their twin kindergarteners. Like us, many of these families are on break from work, or work remotely from Chacala. With the cost of living so low for visitors from the U.S., living in and working from Chacala is a lot more feasible than one might think.

In a future blog post, I will delve deeper into how we made this trip happen both logistically and financially, with the hope that it might inspire other families to do the same.

If you are already inspired and are interested in joining or supporting the El Jardín community, please contact school director Jorge Rangel. Please tell him I sent you. 🙂



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