Merry Lea prepares to host nature preschool

Environmental Educator Carol Good-Elliott marks the boundaries of the nature preschool.

This September, a forest clearing near Merry Lea’s Kesling Wetland will be home to a nature preschool four days per week. Tree trunks will serve as seats and an open shelter will keep off the rain.

Central Noble Primary School, Wolf Lake, Ind., and the Cole Center Family YMCA, Kendallville, Ind., are collaborating with Merry Lea on the innovative new nature preschool. District administrators initiated the project by inviting Casey Weimer, CEO of the YMCA, to hold a preschool at Central Noble Primary. They also passed along their enthusiasm for Merry Lea’s Kinderforest program.

Merry Lea’s Environmental Education Outreach Team (EEO) is now preparing a space and crafting a curriculum for the preschool. It will offer preschoolers nature-based early childhood education similar to Kinderforest.

What is a nature preschool?

According to the North American Association for Environmental Education, a nature preschool “must put nature at the heart of the program, it must be based on high-quality early childhood education and environmental education practices, and it must also help lay a foundation for environmental literacy.”

Krista Freel is one of two environmental educators who will each spend two days with the program. She radiates enthusiasm when she discusses student-led, inquiry-based learning. A visit to her office provides a glimpse into the careful curriculum development and regular evaluation that gives depth and polish to Merry Lea’s programming.

“The most exciting part is pioneering an idea that is new in this region. We hope we can get other people interested in what we are doing because we believe it has value,” Krista says. She envisions a preschool experience that addresses the whole child: body, mind and spirit.

“We all have a need to be in nature, a need for a safe community and a need to find our sense of self. If preschoolers can build that esteem within themselves, they will have an intrinsic motivator that will help them throughout their schooling,” Krista says.

Environmental Educator Carol Good-Elliott and Property Supervisor Kerry Goodrich prepare the children’s space.

Rocks, sticks and mud

Teachers will use natural materials to teach regular preschool concepts like comparing sizes and colors. As Krista points out, working with rocks and sticks can help children retain ideas in ways that worksheets don’t.

Imagine a group of children mixing soil and water and figuring out what to do with the mud that results. This activity sounds simple, but it involves planning, communication, creativity and even some basic engineering skills. At the kindergarten level, making mud meets multiple Indiana State Standards.

Helping to staff a preschool four days a week is a big commitment for the EEO Team, but Marcos Stoltzfus, who directs the EEO, believes the decision makes sense.

“This is directly mission-aligned. We know that having kids outside four days a week in all weather and all seasons will benefit them. Also, we are getting many requests for information on nature-based early childhood education. It just makes sense for us to have a program we can claim as ours, to demonstrate to educators in the area,” he said. The preschool will also provide an opportunity for students in Merry Lea’s Master of Arts in Environmental Education program to become familiar with another form of environmental education.

Weimer encourages local families to consider the YMCA Preschool at Wolf Lake.

“Kids who have had a quality early education opportunity will be more successful in school,” she said, citing statistics that show that this advantage has lasting benefits. To inquire about openings, call 260-347-9622.