The history of Friends is grounded in community, inclusion, equity, and social justice – tenets that remain integral to the identity of the school today.
For many years, Quakers in the local community wished to establish a preschool “with an emphasis upon concern for peoples of different backgrounds growing together”. In 1955, the current Ridgewood Meeting House, located at 224 Highwood Ave., was built, and three years later, discussions of a school were underway. In 1959, inspired by the vision of an integrated play experience for preschool-aged children, a volunteer committee began organizing for the development of a nursery school. The local community was surveyed to determine if such a need existed and the community, with support of the Friends Meeting, as well as AME Zion Church and Mt Bethel Baptist Church, determined there was interest. Over the course of the following several months, members of the community – parents and children alike – worked to ready the school space, build furniture, and clear the playground space.
A 1959 article in The Ridgewood, N.J., Herald-News described the community’s vision for the school: “The primary objective of the Neighborhood Nursery School is to provide a joyous and wholesome group experience for pre-school children of all racial, religious, and economic backgrounds.”. When the school opened its doors in 1960 to a class of 20 children, the Herald-News celebrated the establishment of Friends as a non-profit, interracial, interfaith nursery school. It operated separate morning and afternoon nursery programs. The school was, and continues to be, under the care of the Ridgewood Friends Meeting.
In 1964, Friends added a day care program to make the program accessible to children of working mothers, who required full day childcare. This “new educational venture” was “a first of its kind in Ridgewood”.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, volunteers from the Friends School community held fundraisers and other events to support scholarships for the school. Throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s, and into the 2000’s, Friends was known and celebrated for being an inclusive school community that emphasized play-based learning, inquiry, art, nature, and the outdoors.
For six decades, the school continued to operate with around 20 children, relying heavily on the generosity of volunteers from the Friends Meeting and its very dedicated faculty. In March 2020, when schools closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Friends pivoted to the virtual space to maintain a sense of community and connection when families needed it most. Families received virtual and tangible care packages of lessons and activities, watched songs and stories recorded by teachers, and joined in weekly virtual classes to connect and share. As the months progressed and the small group of remaining school volunteers faced the daunting task of re-opening the small school under the necessary Covid-19 restrictions, there were discussions of closing the doors for good. However, similar to its inception, dedicated parents rallied to support the school during this difficult time. Rather than allowing the play-based approach of the preschool program to crumble under the countless safety restrictions, the faculty proposed bringing the classroom fully outdoors. Families rallied around the idea and, once again, dedicated members of the community readied the learning space by building furniture, spreading mulch, and hulling materials in and out of the building for class each day. The program was reduced to ten children and three teachers, all of whom braved every type of weather to learn and play together outdoors. Children practiced the alphabet by painting letters on rocks, developed numeracy while collecting sticks, and built gross-motor skills while digging tunnels in the snow. Once again, the Friends community turned the ordinary into something absolutely magical.
This magic inspired a renewed commitment to the importance of the Friends School and its mission in our local community. In January 2021, a Friends Committee was formed to usher the school into its next era of serving children and the community. The Committee, composed of dedicated alumni and current parents as well as Meeting members, oversees operations and strategic development for the school. Like dedicated volunteers before them, Committee members contribute, plan, build, and donate to support the school. In addition, in 2022, a new Parents Association was developed to support the faculty, fundraise, enhance community, and provide connection between families and the school. In 2023, inspired by the overwhelming success and support of the school’s reimagined outdoor and nature programming, the name of the school was adjusted to Friends Neighborhood Nature School.
While a lot of time has passed since Friends’ inception, not too much has changed. Friends continues to offer children the chance to grow and gain experience in a creative preschool, regardless of race, religion, or background through morning, afternoon, and full day preschool programming, as well as a lively summer camp. The current enrollment capacity of the preschool program is 30 children, and there are never more than 6 children present for every adult. While the physical space continues to be updated, the Quaker emphasis on simplicity is apparent. Children do not need more things, or screens, to learn and grow. What they need is to be seen and celebrated for their inherent worth — their inner light — in an inclusive, diverse, supportive community of learners. Families continue to value Friends for the carefully developed play-based curriculum that highlights inclusion, diversity, sustainability, and service, and how their children are gently taught to take perspectives, observe keenly, reflect quietly, think critically, express themselves thoughtfully, show empathy, problem solve, and collaborate. When children move onto elementary school, they continue to leave Friends with more than just kindergarten readiness skills, they leave ready to be members of a community.
As the school prepares to to celebrate its 65th anniversary in 2025, the school community is committed to continuing to strengthen the school’s academic, social, and emotional programming; expanding programming and scholarship funds to make Friends accessible to more families; and reinvigorating the school’s emphasis on serving the local community, inclusion, equity, and social justice.