Be the Change – Kristy Cowell: Making Her Dream a Reality


Kristy Cowell, founder of Sunny Garden Montessori in Chico, is well versed in Maria Montessori’s methods for teaching children. Before opening Sunny Garden, she taught at Chico Montessori Children’s House for 18 years. Often she heard parents say that they wished they could stay at school with their children. Kristy decided that one day she would open a space where children and parents could come together to learn and play. In November 2010, her dream became a reality … she opened Sunny Garden.

She had been preparing for some time. “I’d been collecting materials forever,” she says. She and her husband Dale Rasmussen, a public defender in Children’s Court of Butte County, prepared the room for the program. While it includes Montessori materials (and more), Kristy explains what matters most: “You can have a classroom filled with Montessori materials, and teachers who don’t practice or live the philosophy, or you can have a space where the philosophy is lived and practiced, that has few Montessori materials. It’s the holistic environment that matters.”

Kristy states that Montessori is a way of life. Her methods encourage teachers to “follow the child.” That is, understanding that children choose activities that draw their attention, and that the process is more important than the product.

art-0413-btc2Sunny Garden is Chico’s only family-play school. Children from birth to age 5 attend with a parent, grandparent or caregiver. Kristy emphasizes that Sunny Garden is not a preschool or daycare center. It is a space for children and the significant adults in their life to share time together – what she sees as the greatest value of the program. “When parents and caregivers come with their children, the children get one-on-one special time with their caregivers, and both children and adults form new friendships,” she says.

Although Kristy has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education and a master’s degree in Human Development with an emphasis on early childhood, she doesn’t see her role at Sunny Garden as that of teacher, but of facilitator. She prepares the learning environment and serves as a resource for parents. “Parents have lots of questions. Sometimes they want and need a caring, giving and empathic advisor,” she says. “Parents also serve as a strong support for each other. They share intimate things about their lives and reach out to each other in support; they learn that they are not alone with their problems.”

Tanya Parish, Kristy’s oldest daughter, teaches a music class at Sunny Garden and plays with her two children there several times a week. “It’s inspiring for me to see my mother living her dream, and how she encourages moms and helps them feel good about how they are parenting,” she says. “There’s a lot of pressure on moms to ‘do it right,’ and when they come to Sunny Garden, they meet other moms and talk to Kristy. They start feeling more supported in their parenting.”

art-0413-btc3As well as spending her days at Sunny Garden, Kristy is an associate faculty member at Butte College. She teaches Child Development on campus and Prenatal Infant Development online. Joya Pedelini, a former online student, brings her two children to Sunny Garden. “I love this place,” she says.” I was pregnant with my second baby when I started coming with my son. It was my salvation. He would have liked to stay and play all day.”

When not working, Kristy enjoys spending time with her three daughters and four grandchildren who frequent Sunny Garden. She likes gardening, hiking and riding her bike. She works out regularly and does her best to live a healthy life. “What really excites me, though, is that I get to play all day in my dream space at Sunny Garden,” she says. “I want families with young children to know that Sunny Garden is here for them as a resource and is a place to build friendships and community, based on our love and respect for all children.”

To reach Kristy Cowell and Sunny Garden call: (530) 343-3101.

[sws_blue_box box_size=”580″]The mission of our Be the Change column is to feature a community member from the North State who is actively making a difference in the lives of children and families. If you would like to nominate someone who is making a difference, please write to[/sws_blue_box]

Carolyn Warnemuende
About Carolyn Warnemuende

Author Carolyn Warnemuende has two daughters and five grandchildren, and lives with her husband in Redding. She writes parenting and educational articles, sponsors a school in Uganda, and visits Africa twice a year. She receives great joy in taking daily care of her four-year-old granddaughter who was adopted from Ethiopia.

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