Partnership Creates One-of-a-Kind Outdoor Education Program for Stevensville Preschoolers

While it has been a decidedly rough year across the board, the pandemic is not without certain silver linings, and a class of preschoolers in Stevensville at Christ Lutheran School is a living, breathing example of one of them.

Imagine children learning in an outdoor setting….painting at easels, enjoying circle time under the shade of brightly-colored sails, and taking advantage of all the learning opportunities that an on-site ravine and creek have to offer.  That reality is the silver lining to the Covid pandemic for a class of preschoolers wherein Christ Lutheran School has been piloting an integrated nature-based component with their youngest students this year.

The concept of Forest School was first established in countries like Denmark and Sweden in the 1950s and it has been catching on in recent years in the United States. Numerous studies have documented increased school performance, as well as benefits to physical and mental health in students exposed to outdoor learning. Janet Staal, Director of Outdoor Education at West Side Christian School says, “The benefits are undeniable,” after they began their outdoor education program in 2013 and immediately saw positive results. That school is partnering with Christ Lutheran in Stevensville to share their experience and enable them to hit the trail running.

Sue Veurink-Meyer, the Director for the Christ Lutheran School’s preschool program, says, “Being outside ignites excitement and curiosity in young learners that cannot be replicated in the classroom.” In addition, she notes that the lack of exercise in today’s society “negatively impacts a child’s cognitive development and psychological wellbeing, both of which are greatly improved with increased exposure to nature.”  She says “a developmentally appropriate preschool should be hands-on and multi-sensory. Nature absolutely engages all the senses, and provides an environment that is rich in language, cognitive, social emotional, and physical learning opportunities.”

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This year’s preschool parents overwhelmingly agree. Tracy Wier, who has a child in the program, says, “I have been so impressed with the program this year. My daughter loves the teachers, the activities, and being outside so much. She has improved many of her gross motor skills and has become more aware of and interested in the nature around her.” Another parent notes that “the hands-on learning they are getting is helping them to become critical thinkers and problem-solvers and to be creative in their ideas.”

Christ Lutheran is also partnering with Sarett Nature Center as it continues to expand its outdoor education program, with plans to work with the naturalists at Sarett to create opportunities for students to learn onsite at the school’s campus, which is an impressive 14-acre wooded parcel with its own creek and eco-system. Students will have an opportunity to learn at the Nature Center, as well.

Tamara Paulun, Chair of the Board of Education at Christ Lutheran School, says, “Our ultimate goal is to expand this to a school-wide program, which will enhance our existing curriculum and create a lifelong appreciation for God’s wonderful creation in our students,” and adds, “We are uniquely positioned for this opportunity as a result of our distinctive campus.” Future plans for the program include a raised garden, several mud kitchens, and an outdoor structure to provide shelter from the most extreme elements.

Enrollment for all grades is now open and tours are offered by appointment. Christ Lutheran School is located at 4333 Cleveland Avenue in Stevensville, and offers accredited Christ-centered education from preschool through 8th grade. For more information, you can visit:  http://christ-luth.org or call 269-429-3788.