Home Outdoor education IN school OUTdoors: Preschool nature based on collaboration | Chroniclers

IN school OUTdoors: Preschool nature based on collaboration | Chroniclers



Nature preschool teachers and students are hardy souls: rain, drizzle or shine; hot, cool or cold; moody or sunny, windy or not, the afternoon lessons are done outdoors.

The collaboration between the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, Central Noble Schools and the Cole Center Family YMCA has created a thriving preschool.

With the support of various donors, tuition for the four-day full-day kindergarten is affordable for most families. And scholarships are available.

According to the Natural Start Alliance, natural preschools in the United States are relatively rare, but their number is growing rapidly.

With about 50 nature-based programs each, California and Washington lead the list of states with the most nature preschools. Minnesota follows with about 40 programs and, despite its harsh winters, Minnesota is the state with the most natural preschools per capita.

The Snapshot from Natural Start Alliance 2020 states: “Over the past three years, nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens and outdoor preschools (collectively, nature preschools) in the United States States have more than doubled to 585, and natural preschools can now be found in nearly every state … Over the past decade, this represents an increase of almost 25 times.

The closest kindergarten to Merry Lea is in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Now in its third year, the Nature Preschool is at full capacity, with 20 students from the Albion, Columbia City and Ligonier areas. Central Noble provides transportation to Merry Lea each day.

The students – mostly ages 4 and 5 – spend their mornings in a classroom with YMCA teachers at Central Noble Primary and their afternoons – rain or shine – outside at Merry Lea.

The Nature Preschool is based on the belief that nature offers “irresistible invitations to children to engage, learn and grow,” according to Marcos Stoltzfus, deputy executive director and director of environmental education at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center at Goshen College.

Objective 1 is to allow the child’s natural curiosity to guide his learning through play, exploration and movement.

“We are always monitoring to make sure that there is no active danger that could injure or injure,” said Stoltzfus, giving an example of how an outdoor space becomes a classroom. For example, when they had to fell a dead tree, they arranged the felled logs so that they could climb them.

As he ran his hands over the logs, he added: “The surface is variable … and really good for practicing great motor development skills, agility, balance and for developing skill in risk.

Another goal is the continuity between play and learning inside and outside. For example, in their Central Noble classroom, students can build with large blocks; in their outdoor classroom they have logs of different sizes to make lean-tos, forts, trails, etc.

Lisa Walter, director of early childhood for the Cole Center Family YMCA, said nature preschool teachers meet monthly with a mentor provided by the Dekko Foundation’s Bloom Initiative to learn more about the development of the ‘child, the means of meeting the needs of the child and the various approaches such as the Montessori and Reggio methods.

Now in its third year, Nature Preschool has its roots in kinderforest, an initiative suggested five years ago by Robby Morgan, an elementary school principal in Wolf Lake who had heard about kinderforest at a conference and hoped that the collaboration with Merry Lea could help in its creation. .

Stoltzfus, who has worked with Merry Lea for six years, said kinderforest is “nature-based education involving multiple and repeated visits to the same place.”

Nature Kindergarten serves as an example of a program for Goshen College graduate students preparing for careers that would include nature-focused programs and for other educators continuing their professional development.

“The hope is that they will at least take a small step towards (nature’s preschool concepts) in their own programs,” Stolzfus said.

Stoltzfus said – both for Kinderforest and for Kindergarten Nature – the collaboration has been “transparent”.

A graduate of Goshen College, Stolzfus worked in museums, nature centers, and a zoo, and also earned a master’s degree in non-profit management before taking up his position at Merry Lea.