Willowell’s outdoor preschool wraps up a successful pilot year

STARKSBORO — An unusual nature-and-arts-based preschool program is wrapping up a successful pilot year.
The Wren’s Nest Preschool is a project of the Willowell Foundation and run by a mother-daughter team of educators. Katie and Karen McEachen of Bristol co-teach the weekly sessions, which are currently run out of Camp Common Ground in Starksboro.
“Willowell has been doing nature education for high schoolers for a decade, and they thought that a preschool would be a really nice sister program,” Katie McEachen said in a recent interview.
Karen, 59, is a museum educator at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and taught at Bristol Elementary School for decades. Katie, 29, was trained in nature-based education and survival skills at the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Wash. Together, they plan and facilitate adventure-filled days with arts activities, sensory-awareness building exercises like sitting meditations, and, of course, adventures in the wilderness.
The McEachens focus on a play-based approach that empowers students to engage with the questions and experiences that interest them the most. In the warmer months, at least half the day is spent outside. And even on the coldest days of winter, the shortest time the group ever spent outside was an hour and a half.
 “There’s something about playing in nature. Kids can be creative with not a lot available, with sticks and dirt and moss,” Katie McEachen said. “It can be empowering for them, because there are challenges, like walking across a creek or balancing on a log. They can pick their own challenges and feel good about them. We’re not giving the same challenge to everyone but they are just there, inherent in the landscape.”
A typical day at Wren’s Nest would have some things in common with other preschool programs, but overall it is not what one would find at a traditional daycare. The day begins with indoor playtime, and students can choose from a variety of creative and constructive materials like Play-Doh, building blocks, drawing and coloring, or reading books. After a snack, the group heads out into the woods for an adventure.
“We don’t need to tell them to sit still, we don’t need to tell them to slow down. It’s set up so that they can move their bodies, and be loud if they want to, and (at that age) I think that’s really important,” McEachen said.
Some days, outside play is guided by an activity. Last Monday, the group was on a scavenger hunt, looking to identify frogs, tadpoles and plants that grew in the water.
Other times, the planned activity is spontaneously thrown out the window.
“Last week, we found a baby turtle,” McEachen said. “That took up a lot of time. We didn’t plan on that! But that’s a big part of our philosophy: planning the whole day, but being really willing to throw out the plans if there’s something that is catching their interest.”
At the end of the group’s outdoor time, each student goes to what McEachen calls their “sit-spot” — a place that they return to each day of class, to sit and engage in some quiet, sensory meditation time.
“At first we did two minutes, then today (near the end of the program) we did seven minutes,” McEachen said. “They do so well, and I think it’s unusual for four-year-old boys to sit still. I don’t usually ask them to, but (the sensory meditation) is a calming thing, a mindfulness thing.”
After their daily meditation, students return indoors for story time, lunch and more reading and quiet relaxation.
Wren’s Nest currently has 10 students enrolled — all boys. After a successful pilot year, Katie and Karen will be back to teach up to 12 students in the fall, with classes once a week, on Mondays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Spaces in next year’s program are still available.
“We’d love to get some girls,” Katie McEachen said.
The McEachens and the Willowell Foundation hope to grow the program in coming years, expanding class days to three to five days a week and expanding class size — though that would require more teachers, as they are committed to keeping a low student-teacher ratio.
McEachen is also hoping to develop a school culture: songs, activities and traditions that will bring the group even closer together. She knows firsthand that nature education groups can have a lasting impression on young kids. She credits her high school teacher, Mount Abraham Union High School teacher Jim Dobkowski, with sparking her interest in nature education.
She and several friends were in Dobkowski’s tracking club.
“It was just six of us going out on adventures,” McEachen recalled. “(Dobkowski) actually mentioned the (Wilderness Awareness) school when I was 15 and it always kind of just stuck, so after college I decided to check it out. He really put a lot of us on this path. I have several friends who are also doing this kind of work, I think, really because of him.”

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