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Cool Schools: Outdoor-based preschool students connect with nature

Earthkeeper Nature School is providing unique learning opportunities for pre-school and kindergarten students.

PUEBLO COUNTY, Colo. — In the field of early childhood development, there’s a new movement that’s becoming popular across the country and in Colorado. Earthkeeper Nature School which opened last year is an outdoor-based preschool serving the Pueblo area.

“It’s an interest-based program that kids learn what we call ‘choose your own adventure’,” said co-founder and director Tami Montoya. “We learn outdoors up here in the Ponderosa Pine Forest and we also learn outdoors at the river campus on the Arkansas River banks in Pueblo.”

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The Earthkeeper Nature Preschool Program focuses on the emotional, social, physical, and academic development of the child. The school uses nature and the outdoors integrated with science, music, math, reading and the arts as part of their curriculum.   

“We feel like children are indoors too much and so we want to give them that opportunity to be outside immersed in nature and develop a connection with it,” Montoya said.

Credit: Byron Reed

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The education program is partnered with the Nature and Wildlife Discovery Center in Pueblo, providing unique learning opportunities for pre-school and kindergarten students. The school focuses on helping students develop habits of observation and discovery through questions and problem-solving in nature.

“We feel like academics were being pushed down to younger and younger children and they’re really not instinctively wired to learn that way,” Montoya said. 

Credit: Byron Reed

According to the school, children must have many satisfying sensory and interactive experiences – they must touch, feel, smell, hear, and see.  As children interpret their sensory experiences, their minds continue to develop and expand.

Credit: Byron Reed

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“That age is when they’re trying to figure things out," Montoya said. "Problem solving and relationships with other kids and play allows them that opportunity."

“I really wanted my daughter to be outside and learning where there’s fresh air,” said parent, Elizabeth Heersink. “I think being outside builds resilience and I see a lot of benefits from it as well.”

Heersink enrolled her daughter Calliope in the program last year, she said she likes her daughter being active and pursuing her interests outside.

“Even though it looks like they’re outside playing all the time, she’s actually learned a lot of traditional numeracy and literacy skills while she’s been here as well,” Heersink said.

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Montoya said the school has had to make a few minor adjustments because of the COVID-19 pandemic but started in-person learning in mid-August.

“We were happy that we’re outside so that we can see our kids and we can have school,” she said.   “That gave us a level of confidence to bring our students back.”

“Obviously, things are a bit different this year with COVID,” added Heersink.  “I’m really encouraged by the fact that children wear masks (and) they’re outside in an environment where the air can be diluted easily.”

The school says the goal is to give students a reason to explore so they can start the new school year with an adventure they won’t forget.

Credit: Byron Reed

“Their interests are what guides their learning and nature provides a lot of interests,” Montoya said. 

> Click here for more information on their website.

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