How a Southwest Michigan greenhouse grows children who are Free to Bloom

Most greenhouses are built to grow plants. Bridgette Blough’s greenhouse grows not only plants — but also children. 

“We transformed our small greenhouse into a one-room schoolhouse,” Blough says. “We have 16 children from ages 5 to 12 from 10 families now attending our school.”

The seed for the Free to Bloom Collective, a nature-based school for children, grew as many ideas do — from an unmet need. 

“My husband Trent and I have three children from our blended family,” Blough says. “We wanted to connect our kids with our lifestyle, in alignment with nature. When we looked at schools around us, they didn’t match with what we wanted to teach our children.”

With her hands already full with her business, Of the Land, a family and community farm providing organic food through a CSA — community-supported agriculture — to its members, called Green Box Marketplace, along with catering for weddings and other events, Blough, who some may recognize as the Organic Gypsy, was initially reluctant to take on yet another venture. But what could be more important than nurturing young minds just as she nurtures healthy bodies? 

“I didn’t want more work, but I talked to another parent friend — Abby Sirovica — and we had a brainstorm,” Blough says. “We were two moms coming together to take action around what we believe in. Abby is a holistic doctor and founder at Grassroots Family Chiropractic. Our first step was to send out a questionnaire to other parents to find out what they wanted for their kids. We did that in April 2023.”

The result became a grassroots movement of parents who wanted a different kind of education for their kids. A homeschool group of families with a belief in the power of nature-based learning, screen-free environments, and experiential learning for children, came together to form the Free to Bloom Collective. The school was launched in August 2023 to foster curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking skills. 

“We blend in-person and self-directed learning with off-site field trips every Thursday to places that the kids choose and that are guided by educators and parents. They may go on a hike through the woods, learn how to identify different species of plants and animals, or participate in literacy activities,” Blough says. “The kids meet on the farm three days a week. It gives them a chance to socialize. I volunteer as head of our operations, and we also hired teachers that we call guides to help. They work as tutors for the kids.”

Free to Bloom Collective differed from many homeschools by keeping on-screen learning to a minimum. 

“It’s not the way most kids learn,” she says. “We saw that during the pandemic when so many kids fell behind.”

Free to Bloom Collective also avoided the common perception of homeschools as being strictly conservative. 

“Our approach is to learn from the land,” Blough says. “And we use the Montessori method for its hands-on way of learning. There is an amazing amount of Montessori materials that our kids can use.

The kids also help on the farm — rather than sitting in a classroom, they help with crops, planting and harvesting, and animal care.”

The children use what they gather to create items for sale that they then sell at the occasional bazaar, interfacing with adults, handling money, and earning income for their efforts. For the school’s recent bazaar in November, they made door swags from corn, homemade wrapping paper, fire starters, and more. 

“We want them to feel empowered rather than entitled,” Blough says. 

The typical school day begins at 8:30 a.m. and concludes at 3:30 p.m. The children work either independently or in small groups. Each child also gets one-on-one time with guides, and often older children help younger children learn, too. 

“Older kids might be reading to younger kids or helping them with other schoolwork,” Blough says. “The oldest child in our program, for instance, is the youngest child in her family, but she’s become a clear leader at the school. It has given her a chance to flex her leadership muscle in a way she hadn’t been able to at home.”

While younger children spend time using Montessori materials, older children work on individualized research projects. The Montessori method, created by Maria Montessori in Italy in the early 1900s but steadily gaining popularity today across the world, is focused on building independence through hands-on learning in all developmental areas. Montessori developed her materials based on the observation that any child can learn if given the right environment, practice, and materials. 
Other hands-on materials are also used, such as Lincoln Logs. 

“Right now, some of the children are learning division,” Blough says. “They build a community out of the Lincoln Logs, and they are also learning how a community works together, using math to distribute resources and divide them among households.”

The children are not graded on their work. Rather than using standardized tests, Free to Bloom uses assessments put together by the guides. 

“As for the legalities of our school, the State requirements are gray in this area,” Blough says. “Pretty much the only requirement is that teachers have a bachelor’s degree, and ours do. For the costs, our parents chip in $600 a month, and that is for supplies, tutor pay, and field trips. It is just enough to cover our costs. We might do a plant sale in spring to raise funds, too.”

Blough’s pride and passion for this new venture are evident. 

“What we as adults need to do is to question our beliefs and values — are we actually living and acting on them,” she says. “Too many of us are disassociated from what we value and how we live. Take your money to do what you love — beginning with your child.”

The school, located on the farm property in Battle Creek, currently has two openings for children ages 7 to 12. Numbers are limited to ensure a close-knit community and personalized attention. For more information, visit the Free to Bloom Collective.
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Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.