Nature Preschool

Merry Lea’s nature-based early childhood programs are unique to the region and unique to the field as we deliver partnership-based programs. 

We collaborate with Central Noble Primary School (CNP), Wolf Lake, Ind. and the Cole Center Family YMCA, Kendallville, Ind., to provide nature preschool Monday – Thursday. Students spend each morning learning in their indoor classroom at CNP before exploring Merry Lea’s outdoor classroom in the afternoon for two hours in rain, shine or snow.

We support our youngest, curious learners through extended time in nature. The outdoors provides rich opportunities for variety, movement and creativity that we supplement with additional tools, hands-on activities and student agency. Activities and excursions at Merry Lea evolve based on students’ emerging interests and connect to themes they explore in their indoor classroom at CNP.

What does a typical day look like?

Rhythms are created by allowing students to develop routines around familiar activities such as sit spots, community circles, free exploration and weekly excursions. All throughout, teachers engage by providing appropriate stimuli, modeling curiosity and other support.

Sit spot time: a sit spot* is a student-selected location in the outdoor classroom, which students visit at the beginning of each program day to sit and observe. This independent time is an opportunity for self-exploration, to develop self awareness and an appreciation for their space. Students are free to interact with their space, journal their thoughts, and notice what they hear, smell, see or feel.
* See Resources and Research for more information and documents on sit spots.

Introduce opportunities children can explore: students are offered many options for how to do a presented activity, use the materials, or otherwise engage with the content. Students have a choice between – and agency over – these immersive activities.

Free exploration and discovery: our curricular approach balances foundational routines with individual evolving interests and exploration. By allowing appropriate risk and emergent play, students will become attuned to seasonal changes, and develop skills with physical, social, cognitive and emotional benefits.

Weekly excursions: our preschoolers experience the same site and ecosystems in all weather and seasons as part of their outdoor classroom. But once a week, the students explore Merry Lea’s wide variety of ecosystems beyond the outdoor classroom. These excursions include hiking through prairies, wading in wetlands, meeting animals at the farm or exploring different forests.

Group activities or community time: full-group activities are included purposefully and carefully to stimulate social growth.

Indoor classroom time at CNP: Reggio-trained* teachers from the Cole Center Family YMCA in Kendallville construct experiences from which children see the meaning of what they learn. Intentional lesson plans and classroom setup, and thoughtful interactions encourage knowledge-retention, self-esteem and individual interests.
* The Reggio approach is an educational philosophy emphasizing self-directed, experiential learning at the preschool and primary level.

Our Partnership Model

Within our partnership, we maintain individual roles as well as share tasks necessary to implement a high-quality nature preschool experience.

  • The YMCA leads administrative and operational tasks, like registration, parent communication, accreditation and more. 
    • The YMCA facilitates the indoor components: curriculum, instruction, acquiring necessary supplies for the indoor classroom and providing professional development to Merry Lea staff on preschool-age appropriate practices.
  • Merry Lea develops and helps manage the preschool as a nature-based program. Elements include: program structure and philosophy, curriculum development and operational plans. 
    • Merry Lea provides the site(s) for daily outdoor exploration and environmental educators to facilitate experiences in nature. Our staff is supported by co-educators from the YMCA for the outdoor classroom.
  • CNP provides the indoor classroom and ‘home’ location for the program. 
  • Meanwhile, both Merry Lea and the YMCA collaborate on indoor and outdoor alignments, overall adherence to our Nature Preschool philosophy and ensure program quality.

Program Resources

We recognize that each school’s needs and settings are unique. We believe nature-based early childhood education is a powerful tool to help children grow, learn and develop. We want to get that tool into the hands of educators in our region. 

To find out more about partnership-model adaptations, educational training, resources, research and professional development opportunities, click the button.

Stories from our Nature Preschool Programs

Questions about Nature Preschool?

Visit Cole Center Family YMCA website to register.

Email Marcos Stoltzfus at marcosas@goshen.edu for questions about Nature Preschool at Merry Lea, partnering with us, professional development opportunities or other resources.

Photos of our Outdoor Nature Preschool Classroom