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Howard County Conservancy’s new Nature Preschool takes the learning outdoors

Sometimes, when she is sitting at her desk at work, Maggie Jones admits being envious of her 3½-year-old daughter, Annabel, in preschool.

“I think, my kid is on a hike right now,” Jones said. “It’s incredible. She loves it.”

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Since March, Annabel and 11 other children ages 3 to 5 have attended Howard County Conservancy’s Nature Preschool, a new program started this year with plans to expand in the fall by adding a second class of 12 students, according to Meg Boyd, executive director of the conservancy.

“We have been thinking about it for a number of years and, with COVID, we felt the timing was right,” Boyd said. “We felt the need to get children learning outside.”

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During a recent open house for perspective students, Annabel and her classmates were allowed to attend with their families. Slipping on their “muddy buddies” — one-piece all-weather gear in bright colors — the young students headed outside to show off their “classrooms” located on the grounds of Belmont Manor in in Elkridge.

“We border Patapsco State Park, and we’ve discovered certain spots,” Boyd said. “There is a small stream, a mud pit, a pond. Our goal is to spend as much time as possible outdoors.”

An actual physical classroom, located in the Carriage House at Belmont Manor, is bright and cheery with posters of local birds and insects on the walls and two aquariums, one with a snake and the other with a terrapin. The room has wide doors that open to a covered patio, where lessons can take place.

“During inclement weather, we spend about 50% of the day in here,” said Jessica Caylor, the preschool’s director. “As long as kids are in appropriate gear ... we embrace the elements outside even for a short time.”

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On a recent Saturday morning, the ground was wet from rain, fog cloaked the trees and skies were gray. None of that concerned the preschoolers as they slid down a muddy hill, splashed in a small stream to fill pitchers, and explored the area around them.

“The positive energy, it feels great,” said Azalea Garcia, of Columbia, as she watched her 4-year-old daughter, Coral. “When I heard the school was nature — and I love nature — I said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

Jones echoed Garcia, saying the decision to enroll Annabel in the preschool was “the easiest decision we made all year.”

“When Annabel is outside for long periods of time, she behaves better; she listens better; she’s happier; and she sleeps better.” said Jones, of Crofton, who also believes the program is doing a good job preparing Annabel for kindergarten.

“They do tons of stuff with letters and numbers,” Jones said. “They do it in a very engaging manner and also teach about nature and a commitment to Earth.”

Howard County Conservancy’s Nature Preschool is only the fourth program of its kind in the state, and it is a certified, licensed preschool.

“We’re not a traditional school, but we’re adding and subtracting and chanting our ABCs through the forest,” said Caylor, noting that students write their letters outside in chalk, do math with various items like pine cones and science projects in the stream and elsewhere.

“We make observations and work them into lessons,” Caylor said. “They will leave here ready for public school.”

Arlene Cronin, a Nature Preschool teacher, previously worked in a traditional school system for 25 years. When she saw the opportunity to teach at the Nature Preschool, she decided to give it a try.

“It is emergent learning,” Cronin said. “It is so exciting. They are not only learning brain skills, they are learning to respect the Earth, too. It is neat watching them learn in this environment.”

Another benefit of learning outside, Boyd said the children learn to take risks.

“A log, is it safe to crawl on and jump off?” Boyd said. “That is what nature is great for, reasonable risks.”

As many of the “classrooms” are located in the state park, the class does interact with a variety of people, including mountain bikers, joggers, hikers, dog walkers and horseback riders. During the open house, the preschoolers all stepped aside to allow people to pass when Cronin asked them.

“We make way for friends,” Boyd said.

She also said families are reminded to check their children for ticks, too. “We try to be as cautious as we can.”

Boyd thrills at watching children explore their environment and scout for wildlife, like when they follow deer paths to look for signs of the animals.

“A grove of pine trees is a shelter for fairy houses,” Boyd said. “It is amazing what they discover. Normally, they are giant trees, through their eyes, they see a playground.”

Registration is now open for the fall 2021 school year. Howard County Conservancy’s Nature Preschool, located at Belmont Manor and Historic Park, 6553 Belmont Woods Road in Elkridge, will host an open house from 9 a.m. to noon May 19 for interested families. For more information, call 410-465-8337 or go to howardnature.org/preschool.

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