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Playing in the dirt at the Kalamazoo Nature’s Way

11/5 | Past Projects

The eyes of the little gray screech owl are as large as dinner plates. So are the eyes of the three- and four-year olds who encircle the owl. If a few pairs of eyes wander, they will wander past Miss Jenny Metz, who has brought two owls from the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and out the wall of windows, open to the nine acres of woods all around Nature’s Way Preschool. Wild turkeys may stroll by, bobbing their gray-blue heads, or a deer bend her long, slender neck to nibble on a patch of grass beneath the oak tree. These eyes miss nothing.

At this preschool, owned by Kalamazoo Nature Center and located at 4442 Oakland Drive, children are encouraged to let their eyes wander and their curiosity, too. They are also encouraged to get down in the mud and get dirty, jump into puddles, and splash around in the rain barrel that collects rain water from the school’s roof.

"At orientation, we tell the parents to expect their children to come home dirty," says Brenda Mohill, who has been teaching at the preschool for 17 years of grubby kids, including her own. "If they aren’t coming home dirty, we’re not doing our job!"

Nature’s Way Preschool is more than three decades old, but this particular building, built of blond brick and lots of glass, opened its doors in August, with the first day of school in September. The 6,000-square-foot new building, designed by Jason Novotny of Tower Pinkster, a daddy of a former preschooler here, is built to make the outdoors a part of the indoors.

"Because Jason’s child came to our old preschool, he understood what we needed," says Heather Parker, who has been teaching at Nature’s Way Preschool for two years. She is also early childhood education director at Kalamazoo Nature Center.

Previously, Parker says, the school was in an old, one-room cabin with a large, stone fireplace in front of it. "We kept the fireplace." She points out the window to the immense structure in the front yard of the school, surrounded by one of several play areas. "But as much as we liked the old cabin, it was too small. We couldn’t have the families and their children and the staff in the school at the same time. "

The new preschool has two large classrooms that mirror each other on one wing, along with storage and a kitchen, and two large offices on the other wing, with a spacious mud room in the middle. Eighty students attend three hours a day in six groups of classes, with a ratio of 14 children to one teacher. They come in for a two-day, three-day, or five-day schedule.

"We’re the fourth oldest-running nature-based preschool in the country." Parker smiles with obvious pride. Nature’s Way Preschool is one of 25 such schools in the United States, and they use a national creative curriculum based on nature themes that incorporate fine motor skills, math, science, literacy and language development.

"Our nocturnal activities are probably the most popular," Parker says. "Children are fascinated with the mystery of life at night. We also have units on space, rainforests, farming, plant life cycles, wetlands and mammals."

Children learn to respect nature, and they learn about the concept of sustainability. Conservation is taught as a value and a way of life.

"People are realizing we need to re-connect to nature," says Parker. "You know, when I was a parent bringing my children here, I just wanted my kids to learn about nature, but it was only when I became an educator that I really began to appreciate how effective this model is for kids. They learn leadership skills, gain confidence, and just grow up happy."

When the new playground was constructed, a decision was made to remove all the traditional playground equipment. The kids play in sand, in dirt, in and around trees, on rock piles, along two hiking trails, and by Portage Creek that runs through the surrounding woods.

"Nature is not the background here," Parker says. "It’s the main event."

When children first arrive at the preschool, says Brenda Mohill, they react differently when told getting dirty is OK.

"Some get right into it," she smiles. "Some are resistant--at first--and some get pretty freaked out. But they all eventually get dirty. We had a 3-year-old girl come to school and, when she saw the pile of logs in the playground to climb on, she told us, 'I can’t do that because I’m just a little girl.' And then she did it. Her new confidence was a wonder to see."

Mud puddle jumping is encouraged, Mohill says. As are making applesauce from apples, making maple syrup from tapped maples, doing yoga on the outdoor deck, watering plants from the rain barrel, and many other indoor and outdoor activities. Classroom inhabitants, aside from children, include a box turtle, a tarantula and a snake. Jenny Metz from the Kalamazoo Nature Center regularly brings other live animals for the children to study.

"When the hawk kills the mouse, we talk about life cycles," says Mohill. "We ask the children, is the hawk mean or is the hawk hungry?"

"Nature becomes familiar," adds Parker. "These kids grow up comfortable with the natural world around them."

Graduation involves overnight tent camping with breakfast at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. "For many of these families, this is their first camping experience," says Parker. "It’s a lot of fun." Other events include Pancake Day, with syrup that the children made from tapped trees.

The preschool is $235 per month, or $2,115 per year for 2-day weeks, and $335 per month, or $3,015 per year, for 3-day weeks for 3- and 4-year olds. Four-year olds are $555 per month, $4,995 per year.

"There are several scholarships available," says Parker. "With some of the scholarships, you can send your child here for as little as $90 per month. Kalamazoo Nature Center offers some scholarships, too, so any child can come."

For more information, visit their website here or call 269.343.7342.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.