Merry Lea, Central Noble nature preschool now available

Carol Good-Elliott, an environmental educator at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College assists Property Supervisor Kerry Goodrich in preparing a shelter for the YMCA Preschool at Wolf Lake. Good-Elliott will also teach in the program two days each week.

ALBION — The previous Central Noble Kinderforest program has moved out of Merry Lea to make way for a new, forest classroom for preschoolers.

The new preschool program is similar to the nature-based learning at Kinderforest, but instead of venturing to the woods once a month, preschoolers will be out every afternoon, rain or shine.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather,” Marcos Stoltzfus, Merry Lea director of environmental education outreach, said. “There’s just bad clothing for the weather.”

This model of education aligns well with the purpose of preschool, Stoltzfus said, which is to teach social-emotional skills, like observation and communication, with some academics.

The preschool is taught through the Cole Center Family YMCA and Merry Lea, and it’s supported by Central Noble.

The school district is providing a classroom and a bus for the kids to be transported back and forth to preschool, a cost which is well worth its value, Superintendent Troy Gaff said.

“In our minds, it’s well worth that little bit to have those kids in a structured environment before they get to us in kindergarten,” Gaff said.

The environmental-based learning style is much different from what one would see in the typical preschool classroom, since one big emphasis of the program is supervised risk-taking.

Stoltzfus illustrated the idea like this: one day, some of the students might walk across a log. Another day, a student might want to walk across the same log, but it’s raining, so the wood is slippery and wet.

Instead of snatching the kid down off of the log, Merry Lea staff let them take an “appropriate” risk, Stoltzfus said, but not without helping them walk through some of the thoughts the kids should have to evaluate the risk.

“We might ask, ‘Are you feeling safe right now?’ or ‘Have you noticed thorns below you?’” Stoltzfus said.

Part of this is because staff want kids to learn to make smart decisions, but they also want to encourage them to take charge of their own education.

“When the student takes charge of their learning, that changes the role of the instructor who is with them,” he said.

They also want to teach kids about the world around them while they’re still young to have a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.

“By being out in a natural setting, we really hope students come to appreciate the nonhuman elements of the natural world,” Stoltzfus said.

Merry Lea staff make a point to know each student individually and their limits, Stoltzfus said. There’s also a rule that the kids aren’t allowed to climb higher than the adult with them can reach.

This educational model at Merry Lea has already received praise from students’ families.

In the first year they did Kinderforest, Stoltzfus said, they had a hot dog roast at the end of the school year, and invited families and the students to the woods to talk about what they learned.

At one point during the roast, students took their parents to their “sit spots,” small places where they would sit and record observations each time they came out to the woods.

“Some of the families were not expecting their kindergartener to lead them down the trail,” Stoltzfus said. “One kid talked about how they got to watch a mushroom grow over several months of visits.”

As for Kinderforest, that program will still continue, but will move to woods owned by Central Noble. Stoltzfus said the goal of Kinderforest since its conception was to eventually have the school take it over completely.

The Merry Lea preschool program is open to four- and five-year-olds. Contact the Cole Center for enrollment availability at 347-9622.

School began Sept. 9.

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