Bea (left) and her Sylvia (her teacher) knead dough at Morning Meadow, an alternative preschool and kindergarten in Gainesville that utilizes a century-old but still uncommon teaching method. Photo by Erik Knudsen.

At 5, Sylvia Paluzzi had to complete a task, putting pegs in their proper holes, before she could join her friends outside. At 6, teachers pulled her out of class for coloring outside the lines. They told her she was careless and couldn’t draw.

Some kids withdraw from school because of incidents like these, Paluzzi said, now a teacher herself. Positive preschool experiences can make children think school is wonderful, while negative ones can make them lose their natural love of learning, she said.

Paluzzi hopes this never happens at her school.

“I think we as human beings are unlimited,” she said.

All children can be artists, musicians and growers and can understand chemistry and math, she said, if they are exposed to the material in a pleasant way by a teacher who helps them find their natural talents, strengths and passions.

Paluzzi, 48, is the founder and director of Morning Meadow Preschool and Kindergarten, an alternative private school in Gainesville for children aged 2 1/2 to 6. For almost 20 years, she has been igniting her students’ fire for learning using the Waldorf method. This century-old, nonreligious educational system emphasizes not only children’s intellectual development, but also their emotional, physical and spiritual growth.

Although the number is growing, the United States has fewer than 200 Waldorf schools, so Paluzzi’s approach to education is far from common. So is the way she dresses. Paluzzi teaches and plays with her students wearing long, flowing skirts, an apron and bangles that cover her forearms. She frames her big, brown eyes with thick, black eyeliner, loosely wraps her long black hair with a headscarf, and pins flowers in the back.

She looks like a gypsy, said Cristina Eury, a friend who used to teach with her.

Nina Hofer, a friend whose children attended Morning Meadow, said she was overwhelmed when she first met Paluzzi 15 years ago. She said Paluzzi is “the most amazing and insightful person I’ve met in my life, by far.”

Discovering Waldorf

Growing up in Miami, Paluzzi was one of six children. At 17, she gave birth to her first son.

While at the University of Florida in the early 1980s, Paluzzi drifted through pre-med courses she didn’t like, then took a year off. Back home in Miami, her mom pointed out that every job she picked involved kids. Upon returning to UF, Paluzzi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

After having her second son, Paluzzi’s best friend introduced her to the Waldorf School of Gainesville, open from 1979 to 1996, where Paluzzi could bring her baby with her to work.

She became an assistant teacher and was struck by how happy the children were. They still fought from time to time, she said, but they were laughing and singing and the teacher wasn’t micromanaging them like some from her childhood.

At a traditional school where she worked previously, Paluzzi saw kids brought to tears when learning fractions. But at the Waldorf School, they seemed vibrant, harmonious and carefree.

A few months later, the teacher she assisted left, and Paluzzi was asked to replace her. She spent three summers training to be a certified Waldorf teacher at Sunbridge Institute in New York while also teaching at the Waldorf School in Gainesville.

That’s when she met Edy Zettler, a mother of one of Paluzzi’s “original families.”

“She’s a fabulous person, but that’s obvious. You’re able to tell right off the bat,” Zettler said. “She’s very straightforward, honest, no nonsense.”

In 1993, Paluzzi left the Waldorf School and started her own school out of her house with five students. After nine years, Morning Meadow moved out of her house, and five years ago, it settled at its current location. Paluzzi’s school has grown to 48 students in two classes, each with two teachers who are encouraged to bring their young children with them to work.

This fall, the first-, second- and third-grade students left Morning Meadow and moved to Heart Pine Elementary, a new outgrowth of Morning Meadow that is renting space at Highlands Presbyterian Church. Heart Pine is run by a board of parents, including Paluzzi, whose 7-year-old son attends the school with 14 other students.

Teaching at Morning Meadow

Instead of labeling their cubbies and art projects with their names, preschoolers in Paluzzi’s class use their spirit symbols.

She tries to pick a symbol, like a tree, cat or heart, that fits the child’s personality. One student, Maya, was a “light-filled, ethereal being, flitting from one activity to the next,” she said, “and you felt like if you tried to hold her, she would flutter away.”

Paluzzi chose the butterfly as Maya’s spirit symbol.

Sometimes she assigns symbols to the children before meeting them. Most of the time, she said, they unknowingly go to the cubby labeled with their symbol.

Although her students are very young, “She really sees them,” Hofer said. “She’s really listening.”

The school day begins outside.

“I think it’s important for children to have an experience with nature,” she said, “to dig, and look for worms and bugs, and plant seeds and watch them become something.”

Most kids today have lost their connection to nature, she said — a connection that is important if society wants responsible adults who appreciate the environment and fight for its preservation.

Surrounded by a tall wooden fence covered in chalk drawings, her kids sing, crawl and jump around the trees, monkey bars and vegetable garden. In their minds, they are gourmet chefs, truck drivers or puppies.

Paluzzi walks among them, solving disputes, offering words of wisdom and engaging in their fantasies.

As a gentle signal, Paluzzi and her co-teacher sing to their class of 4- to 6-year-olds, and they line up to wash their hands. Paluzzi sits with a large ceramic bowl in her lap and scrubs their hands. Then, the two teachers and the preschoolers form a circle on a large rug. They hold hands, dance and sing about the wonders of nature, tasks like washing the floor and baking bread, and make-believe creatures.

Then, it’s snack time. The children sit at tiny tables, where they thank Mother Earth and Father Sun and bless their friends and families before eating. Blessings said throughout the day are often earth-based, Paluzzi said, “because I wanted the children to have an experience of reverence without an attachment to any one religion.”

The school has parents from many religions and cultures, so in addition to more general blessings, Paluzzi also chooses fairy tales from cultures around the world.

While parents pack their children’s lunches, the school prepares their snacks. Students eat a vegan meal of whole grains and vegetables, such as rotini sprinkled with broccoli and nutritional yeast.

Though not a vegan, Paluzzi buys organic food when she can and supports local farmers at the downtown farmers’ market.

At school, her kids use glass cups and ceramic bowls instead of more kid-friendly disposables, because Paluzzi said she likes to live by a Native American saying: “Whatever you do, do it with the seven generations after you in mind.”

After the preschoolers clean up, Paluzzi sings again to signal playtime. Her classroom is filled with “open-ended toys” — objects like colorful cloths, shells and wood that students can transform into whatever they want — which Paluzzi said encourages creativity and imagination.

The boys and girls ask, “Miss Sylvia, will you help?” and she pulls out art supplies or ties cloth around their bodies to make costumes. Waldorf teachers make toys in class so students see the time and effort involved, and thus, have more respect for toys when they play with them, she said. All their toys are made from biodegradable materials.

Waldorf ideology discourages plastics as well as TVs and computers around young children, so Paluzzi encourages her Morning Meadow families to find other avenues of entertainment.

Creating an Extended Family

The school doesn’t have room for all the children who want to attend. Paluzzi is trying to find a larger property so she can enroll more students and give them “a more wild setting” with less urban noise, where they can explore nature.

Friends of Morning Meadow Preschool, a nonprofit devoted to establishing a permanent Waldorf school in Gainesville, found a 14-acre property that Paluzzi said would be convenient for families because it’s only 10 minutes from University Avenue, but “you can still go into the woods and hear the sounds you should hear.”

The nonprofit’s Waldorf initiative keeps attracting more supporters, she said, and every year it raises more money than the year before. Last year, it raised about $35,000.

But the organization still doesn’t have enough to buy the property and build a facility that unites the growing preschool and elementary school.

Paluzzi said she’d like Morning Meadow to outlive her, and might someday pass the school on to one of the younger teachers. But for now, teaching and running Morning Meadow has her up at 6 a.m. every day.

“I really, really love it,” she said, “so to me it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. It feels like a blessing.”

Paluzzi seems to embody the spirit of Waldorf education; parents talk about her and the school’s ideology as if they were one and the same.

After almost 20 years in the Gainesville community, Paluzzi says Morning Meadow is more like an extended family than a school. Parents whose kids are long gone from the school still volunteer, and former students return to help with summer camp or holiday parties. Paluzzi keeps in touch with several students who are now in their early twenties.

She takes pride in knowing her students leave Morning Meadow with “a sense of openness and possibilities awaiting them.”

After teaching children, Paluzzi said teaching parents is her second favorite thing.

They come to her with their questions and concerns, said Ashlee Sharpe, a mother and Morning Meadow teacher.

“She’s good at listening, thinking about it, picking apart the issues and helping you figure it out,” Sharpe said.

It’s not always obvious, said Peter Polshek, a Morning Meadow parent, but Paluzzi has an incredible depth of understanding of each child. And not only does she understand the children, he said, but she also understands the families and the parents.

Hofer agreed.

“She’s not just a teacher for my child,” she said. “She’s a teacher for me.”

The photos above were taken by Erik Knudsen at Morning Meadow Preschool and Kindergarten. Interested in learning more? Check out their website.