Education

New Cedar Rapids preschool is all about nature and being outdoors

Students will spend up to 3 hours outside learning at Creekside Forest School in Cedar Rapids

Emily Roediger (right), Indian Creek Nature Center naturalist, leads a preschool Trail Trekkers activity Jan. 9 at the n
Emily Roediger (right), Indian Creek Nature Center naturalist, leads a preschool Trail Trekkers activity Jan. 9 at the nature center in Cedar Rapids. The nature center is opening a preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds at the center this fall, with space for up to 26 students. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A new preschool is promising children will get “so messy” while also being prepared for kindergarten at a new nature-based preschool program launching this fall.

Children will spend up to three hours in outdoor learning during the half-day preschool program — at Creekside Forest School — while they learn how to learn, be curious, play with peers and the basics of behavior.

“We guarantee children will get dirty, and that’s the magic of a nature-based preschool,” said Kelli Kennon-Lane, director of education for the Indian Creek Nature Center.

When the coronavirus pandemic halted many of the center’s in-person programs and the Aug. 10 derecho damaged parts of the property, the center saw an opportunity to pivot.

“The pandemic and derecho gave us breathing room and space to look at bucket list items we had created years ago,” Kennon-Lane said. “We looked at the things that were possible now that we have this space given to us.”

Kennon-Lane said the center was forced to change the way it delivered on the center’s mission: to promote a sustainable future by nurturing individuals through environmental education, providing leadership in land protection and restoration and encouraging responsible interaction with nature.

The half-day preschool will be for 3- and 4-year-old children in Eastern Iowa. It has spots for 26 students, who will be divided between morning and afternoon sessions.

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The preschool classroom — at Indian Creek’s Amazing Space, 5300 Otis Rd. SE in Cedar Rapids — will not be “plastic and primary colors,” Kennon-Lane said. The classroom will be decorated in earth tones and natural materials like wood and wicker furniture.

During good weather, students will check in and start with circle time to set the goals and intentions for the day. They then will head outside for an activity, such as a hike to the wetlands to learn about water creatures or to practice letters and counting in nature.

The preschoolers will prepare a snack with teacher support and have small group time to reinforce a skill they learned, Kennon-Lane said.

Students will spend anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours outside each day.

If it’s raining or super cold, students might bring mud or snow into the classroom.

“We’re bringing the outdoors in when we have to be in,” Kennon-Lane said.

Two teachers will be hired for the program overseen by Kennon-Lane, who had experience as a teacher and administrator before coming to the nature center four years ago.

The center is working with Childcare Resource and Referral to work with day care centers and home providers in Linn County who offer transportation to accommodate the half-day program.

The program’s budget will be separate from the nature center’s operating budget, Kennon-Lane said.

The community response to the program has been “overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

“Preschool aligns with goals families have in Linn County. There is a gap in early childhood education. The pieces just fell into place perfectly. There is not a better time than now to launch this preschool,” Kennon-Lane said.

The new preschool is continuing to take applications, though 170 children already have applied for the 2021-22 school year. Applications also are being accepted for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years.

The program has been approved by the Iowa Department of Human Services.

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For more information about applying, tuition and tuition assistance, visit indiancreeknaturecenter.org or call (319) 362-0664.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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