It’s been said that nature is our greatest teacher. This is something that the Nursery School takes to heart.
The Stapleton-based preschool is the first in the Mile High City to operate in a fully outdoor classroom: no building, no water, no electricity, no indoor bathrooms. Instead, students ages 3 to 6 learn by exploring Bluff Lake Nature Center, where the Nursery School is located. The program—which has been open since October—offers two half-day sessions (with a morning and afternoon option), five days a week, and operates outdoors year-round, save for severe weather events.
“We aren’t as focused on the ABCs and 123s, but more on the social-emotional skills and empathizing for friends and Mother Nature,” says co-founder Matthew Hebard.
Based on the ideals of forest kindergartens popular in Europe, Hebard and co-founder Brett Dabb wanted to give Colorado families an educational option that’s not currently available. The only problem? The state didn’t have a childcare license to fit their model. For two years, the pair worked with the Department of Human Services to make their idea for outdoor-based preschool a reality.
Hebard and Dabb—both of whom are trained in forest school education and have master’s degrees in Administrative Leadership and Policy Studies with a focus on Early Childhood Education from the University of Colorado Denver—laid out their plans for the state, and fielded their concerns: weather, lack of amenities, wildlife encounters, and other unqualified people trying to copy the format without the necessary education and training. Finally, in early May, a draft for a six-month pilot license was approved.
“Safety is our number one priority and the state’s number one priority,” says Hebard, a former preschool and kindergarten educator. “With that in mind, we want to teach kids to use their natural curiosity to grow in every way.”
The Nursery School puts the tools and schedule directly in the hands of students. The flow of the three-hour program is self-directed by the students through exploration, observation of nature, climbing, building forts, and naturally weaving in math, literacy, art, and dramatic play.
Beyond their natural inclination to play, at this young age, children’s awareness of their impact on the world is also growing. Officials from Bluff Lake Nature Center have given the Nursery School permission to stray from the trail into some wilder spaces, but Hebard says it’s the kids who are often concerned that they could be hurting an animal’s habitat by playing in one place too often.
While some parents might balk at allowing young children to be in the elements for long periods, Hebard says the kids hardly complain. When dressed in proper layers and sent off with a good attitude, kids can trudge through a stormy day and take notice of each kind of snowflake instead of dwelling on the precipitation. Since October, just one day of Nursery School has been cancelled due to inclement weather.
“From my perspective, we as a society have strong beliefs about the competency of children,” Hebard says. “We are so worried that kids are going to get hurt that we treat children as a deficit. We need to let them find out what they are capable of.” The students also rarely get sick—all that fresh air does them good—and seem to get over a case of the crankies at a clip. No matter the age, who can stay in a funk when deer are wandering by?
The Nursery School will have the next six months to prove its methods by keeping meticulous records of everything that happens within the program: snack breaks, duckling sightings, potty breaks/accidents, and the like. With the seasons changing their classroom—from autumn hues to winter barrenness to new life in the spring—there’s always something new to learn. And once the Nursery School pilot license runs out before the new year, Hebard and Dabb hope that a permanent solution for outdoor education will be born in Colorado.
Learn more: Hebard and Dabb recommend that interested parents schedule a time to visit during a session to get a feel for the curriculum. In addition to their half-day preschool program, the Nursery School is hosting week-long, half-day summer camps for $200 per week. Find out more at thenurseryschoolcolorado.com.