Small World : Anneliese’s Preschools Are Magic Places Where Children Are Respected, Trusted and Otherwise Treated Like Real People

Times Staff Writer

Anneliese Schimmelpfennig’s family--extended, to be sure--is composed of a husband, about 5,000 children, two of whom are her own, an overweight pygmy goat, 15 flop-eared rabbits (at last count), and a wallaby named Sidney. And while they don’t all come back to their spiritual home for the holidays, enough of them do to make this time of year both hectic and joyous at the Laguna preschool that bears her name. (Because the odds are that only her husband, two natural children and possibly Sidney even know her last name, she is Anneliese--pronounced Ahna-leesay--to everyone.)

While always a place of beauty and wonder, at Christmas this Black Forest enclave nestled in Manzanita Canyon becomes much like Dr. Seuss’ Whoville, with children’s voices wafting up in song like smoke from dozens of little campfires and infecting even the Grinches who might live on the surrounding hillsides.

Handcrafted decorations and artwork dot the classrooms and hallways and build to a great crescendo in the skylighted, greenhouse-like atrium that is the school’s entrance--a gathering place and site for the Christmas tree.

It is here between Christmas and New Year’s that a continuous open house takes place, where parents, neighbors and, most especially, former students drop by for a few minutes or a few hours, for some conversation, some tea or a hug (“Children need lots of hugs,” Anneliese says).


On one recent day, former students included a first-grader, a fourth-grader and Stanford medical student Barbara Legend, 19 and a member of one of Anneliese’s first classes, who was en route to San Diego and “couldn’t drive through Laguna without stopping” for a visit.

The songs--Christmas, Hannukah and nonsectarian--are in several languages, not from rote but from understanding, because language training is an integral part of this unique institution’s overall education program. This is a school where the children, ages 2-6, spend several hours a day learning German, Spanish, French, Russian and sign language.

When they arrive, it’s not “Good morning,” but “Buenos dias,” and when they leave, it’s “auf wiedersehen.”

They also learn mathematics, music (most will even come to know the difference between Rachmaninoff and rock salt), art, sound nutritional principles, cooking, gardening and reading skills.

Most important, they learn to care about--and for--one another, and to savor the grand diversity of the people and things that occupy this planet.

On the surface, paradoxes abound. In class, the children are extremely well behaved, yet there is no discipline. In the play yard, they are essentially unsupervised (teachers watch, but don’t interfere), free to do anything but harm one another or any other living thing, yet a certain sense of order prevails.


To understand these seeming contradictions, one must first know Anneliese’s philosophy on children and their educational abilities.

“Our goal is for the kids to be kind, aware, critical, compassionate and responsible,” she says. “Given half a chance, and a little direction, it’s a natural course for them anyway. But you have to trust them. They don’t like being herded, and they instinctively resist losing their individuality, so you must nurture that need for freedom and that hunger to learn.”

“There is discipline here, but no one is ever disciplined. We teach and practice self-discipline.”

“You must understand that 80% of a person’s intellect is developed at this age, and the challenge is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but to instill in them a desire for continued learning.”

“We don’t have age groups; we have ability groups.”

“We’re honest with the children, even with our criticism. We don’t want them to become people-pleasers. We’ll never say to a child, ‘That’s awful,’ but we will say, ‘I think you can do better.’ ”

“Every child has a talent; it’s up to us to discover what that talent is and to develop it.”

“ ‘I am my own best teacher,’ is something we have the children say all the time, so that they have an understanding that they must be involved in their own education.”

“We reject any sex-role training. We don’t have little toy ovens for girls and little toy trucks for boys. Our boys learn to cook and to knit and our girls learn to build things.”


“Children at this age deserve the best.”

Anneliese’s Preschool operates on a premise opposite that of Disneyland. While little is left to the imagination at the Anaheim theme park, imagination is everything at the old monastery on Manzanita Avenue.

The play area is not your standard large, flat section of land with a set of swings here and a slide there. Instead, it is a huge backyard filled with fruit trees, a terraced hillside with rough paths, a vegetable garden, an herb garden and a large mound of dirt.

Tucked away on the upper level are the nearest things to playground equipment on the property--some ropes and an old tire hanging from a tree.

“We leave some boards out there and some pails and shovels and encourage the kids to create their own playground,” Anneliese says. “and you’d be amazed at what they do.

“Big, flat playgrounds are designed by people afraid to take any risks. Most day-care centers, preschools and other schools are primarily concerned with protecting the children. What they wind up doing is taking away the very thing kids need, and that’s responsibility.

“So the children are first threatened by the sterile surroundings and then bored by the planned activities on the planned equipment. Bored children become aggressive.”


A playground, she believes, must be a world of wonder by itself, with hiding places, secret places, quiet places, places to play in the mud, places to play in the water, places to jump, trees to climb, things to grow. In short, a place to challenge the creative powers and imaginations of children.

Her children have all that and more. They grow radishes and lettuce and tend the apricot, persimmon and citrus trees and an exotic herb garden. And, in 18 years of the school’s existence, there has never been a serious accident or lawsuit.

The children also share the yard with the wallaby, goat and rabbits. “It’s important for them to respect the lives and space of all living creatures,” she says. “These are not pets; they are neighbors and are treated as such.”

Anneliese is leading a class in German, and one of the boys is fidgeting and distracting the child next to him. “George,” she says, “do you a have a problem we should talk about that keeps you from behaving?” George, who is 4, says no. “Do you think you can behave now?” He says yes and the class continues.

“I don’t believe in saying ‘Don’t do that!’ to the children. They make a commitment to me to listen and to participate and to learn. They know it’s a bond of trust, and they honor it.”

A while later, she notices how glum a little girl seems. “Lisa, is there something wrong? Do you feel OK?” Lisa, 5, says she’s fine, and Anneliese asks whether she’s in a bad mood. Lisa nods, so Anneliese says, “OK, let’s go out into the garden and shake it out.” She rubs the child’s back and the girl shakes like a wet animal and together they take the bad mood and throw it into the garden. It works: When Lisa returns to the class, she’s animated and smiling.


Several of the 5-year-olds are asked to stage a short drama for the others. They choose a problem apparently faced by one the day before. He plays a new boy who hits one of the other children in the playground. The victim tells him sternly, “We don’t hit people at this school. If you have a problem, we can talk about it or we can go talk to a teacher.”

The fourth-grader says he enjoys visiting because “It’s like coming home.” Like many of the children at Anneliese’s, his parents are divorced, and the school was a stabilizing force in his life while the family was going through the trauma.

And Anneliese, 48, pays particular attention to children of divorce. “We talk about it,” she says, “about their feelings, . . . and we listen to them. They are, after all, a part of this family.”

The homelike atmosphere of the school helps, too, along with the fact that the staff has undergone very few changes over the years. For the most part, the 31 teachers on her staff have advanced degrees in either psychology or education and have been with the school for more than 10 years.

Anneliese’s daughters--Liese, 20, and Ruth, 19--have grown up with the school and like big sisters in any family have played special roles with the younger children. Liese is now at UC Santa Cruz, but Ruth, a student at UC Irvine, still leads classes in math and Russian.

All the children enjoy a special few captivating moments each day with Anneliese, when she kneels or crouches in front of them so that she is at eye level. She envelopes their hands in hers and the blue eyes seem to reach the soul. For that time, even if the room is crowded, they are alone and she speaks softly to them; it may be a question in German to which she expects a reply in German or it may be a math problem or something of a personal nature. There is magic then, for both her and the child.


Anneliese’s belief in the long-term benefits of language instruction for preschoolers recently received some heady support. Yale psychology professor and author Kenji Hakura says children who can speak more than one language learn to read more quickly than their monolingual peers. And he says his research shows bilingual youngsters are more imaginative, better with abstract notions and more flexible in their thinking.

“Well, of course,” Anneliese says. “It shows them very early that there is not just one way of saying things, which leads them to figure out that there’s also not just one way of living or doing anything else.”

It proves even more helpful when they reach the high school level and must take language for credits. “Our training here, which gets stored in that little tape recorder in the brain, makes our children much more confident and much less intimidated by language classes.

“And,” she says, “they retain the pronunciation skills that come so easily to a 3-year-old and are usually so difficult for an 18-year-old--the rolling R of Spanish or some of the guttural German sounds.”

The reason she starts each day with language classes, she says, is because “it opens the children’s minds for the math classes and other things that follow.”

Prominent South County urologist Mark Sullivan says he was initially critical of the school when his daughter, now 13, began classes there when she was 2 1/2. “As a surgeon, I’m obsessed with cleanliness,” he says, “and I was concerned because some of the kids were getting awfully dirty in the playground.

“I mentioned it to Anneliese,” he says with a chuckle, “and she helped me realize that children are designed to get dirty; that’s why they’re built so close to the ground.”


Today, he says, “I can’t articulate as beautifully as I would like how I feel about Anneliese, about the school or about the program. I think it’s wonderful, particularly the practice of promoting art with the children as a means of expression and other methods they use to introduce children to diversity.”

Anneliese says her dream of creating a preschool along the philosophical lines of the Laguna facility was born in resentment over the preschool she attended in Germany. “It was one of those ‘total control’ places where there was always someone barking ‘do this,’ ‘do that’; a big and very orderly baby-sitting service is all it was.”

She became a nurse first, then decided, “I don’t believe in disease,” so she went back to the university in Munich and earned a master’s degree in psychology and education. When she and her American-born, Princeton-educated husband, Paul, settled in Laguna (he was then teaching at UC Irvine and is now a free-lance writer), the opportunity came when the old 17-room monastery on Manzanita became available.

Starting with a class of 20, the school has grown each year--as does the waiting list, even though there are now three facilities, all of which Anneliese supervises directly: the original Manzanita house in central Laguna, with 60 children; Aliso, a one-time elementary school in South Laguna, with 120 children, and the recently acquired four-acre Rajneesh property in Laguna Canyon, renamed Willowbrook, also with 120.

One simple formula, however, binds them all: “The children are treated like people; they are trusted and respected, loved and hugged . . . and we laugh a lot.”



758 Manzanita

Laguna Beach



20062 Laguna Canyon Road

(at El Toro Road junction)



21542 Wesley Drive

(at Coast Highway)

South Laguna


Full and half-day programs are offered. Cost for full day is $285 per month and includes hot lunches. There is a waiting list at all three schools.