Nature Preschool

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.

We partner with Central Noble Primary School (CNP) and the Cole Center Family YMCA 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.

What does a typical day look like?


A sit spot* is a student-selected location in the outdoor classroom, which students visit sometime during many program days 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.

* For more information and documents on sit spots:

Resources & Research


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.


Full-group activities are included purposefully and carefully to stimulate social growth.


Our curricular approach balances foundations 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.


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.


Teachers from the Cole Center Family YMCA 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.

Resources for Educators

Resources for Educators

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.

Find out more about partnership-model adaptations, educational training, resources, research and professional development opportunities.

Our Partnership Model

YMCA's Roles

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.

Both Merry Lea and the YMCA collaborate on indoor and outdoor alignments, overall adherence to our Nature Preschool philosophy and ensure program quality.

Merry Lea's Roles

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.

Both Merry Lea and the YMCA collaborate on indoor and outdoor alignments, overall adherence to our Nature Preschool philosophy and ensure program quality.

Central Noble Primary's Role

CNP provides the indoor classroom and ‘home’ location for the program. 

Stories from our Nature Preschool Program

Questions about Nature Preschool?

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

Questions about Nature Preschool?

Visit the Cole Center Family YMCA website to register!