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Lincoln preschool spends year outside

DURING THEIR YEAR-END circus performance this past Thursday, children at the Lincoln Cooperative Preschool let out a howl in honor of the school’s new outdoor classroom, which they christened the Wolf’s Den. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

It felt safe being outside (in the outdoor classroom). We could bring out many favorite toys and books, and it was just so wonderful to be together again.
— Kerry Malloy

LINCOLN — There are few things in this world so charming as the self-conscious deliberations of a four-year-old onstage just before she gives in to the urge to break character and wave to her parents in the audience.

There were oodles of such charm, and more, at Lincoln Cooperative Preschool’s biennial circus last Thursday: tumbling and trapeze, high wires and hula hooping.

Some of the parental participation, such as set changes between acts, was planned. Other times it took on the quality of a rescue mission as one or another child dissolved temporarily into tears, requiring hugs and whispered consolations.

After the final bow, longtime director and teacher Kerry Malloy issued end-of-the-year diplomas to each student. “For excellence in play, joyousness in song, hilarity of laughter, swiftness of sledding, heartiness of appetite, love of stories, spirit of friendship, and completeness of paint coverage, you are hereby graduated. May the memories of your time here always bring a smile to your face.”

Most of those memories will involve a special place that did not exist before the pandemic: an outdoor classroom, built last fall, where kids and teachers spent nearly every moment of the school year, rain or shine, sleet or snow.

“(We spent) 163 days outside,” Malloy told the Independent. “As it kept getting colder we kept dressing warmer and everyone’s bodies adapted. It got to the point where a sunny, not windy, 35-degree day was considered a ‘hot day.’”

The idea for the outdoor classroom emerged last summer.

“The health and safety guidelines in the early summer (of 2020) were going to mean a very different preschool experience for returning students,” Malloy explained. “No stuffed animals, no dress-up clothes, no group activities. Preschool children tend to be extremely social and physical. They love to play with friends, in close proximity. If a teacher sits down to read a book to a child, four or five more children will always come crowd in to listen too. I was determined to have the safest and most normal preschool year possible.”

For Malloy that meant staying outside.

Not such a great leap for a preschool that was already outdoor-oriented. But finding space for a new building was challenging. A small outdoor covered space or a large tent would require moving the preschool’s gardens. If it would have to come to that, Malloy thought, “Why not put up an outdoor classroom in that space?”

Early last August Malloy went across the street to the Lincoln Community School to look at their outdoor building. As luck would have it she ran into the folks from Bag End Builders of Starksboro who built the structure. She asked them on the spot if they would build something for the Lincoln Cooperative Preschool and they said yes.

The preschool got tremendous support from the community, Malloy said. A GoFundMe campaign and other fundraising generated $17,000. Additional funding came through state and federal COVID grants and the preschool’s own capital building fund.

By the time the preschool opened on Sept. 8 it had a 260-square-foot, year-round tent and a 500-square-food platform that would soon become a covered classroom.

“It felt safe being outside,” Malloy said. “We could bring out many favorite toys and books, and it was just so wonderful to be together again.”

That fall, while the builders worked on the outdoor classroom, the preschool tailored its activities to the weather, Malloy said, and “the children just happily went along with all of it.”

Malloy worked around the clock until Thanksgiving to plan for winter. By that time, the outdoor classroom had acquired a roof and sidewalls. In January the last of the translucent tarps was attached, enclosing the space.

Two restaurant-style propane heaters kept it warm enough for children to work and play comfortably in their snowsuits.

Thanks to a grant from Neat Repeats in Middlebury, the preschool was able to purchase a large clothes dryer so all the children’s wet gear would be dry again when they emerged from “quiet time.”

They retreated inside only when sub-zero temperatures struck, Malloy said, and that happened only seven times the whole year.

“I thought I would be obsessing over weather reports and cringing to hear the snow plow at night. That didn’t happen at all. It was definitely more work, but the days were fun and passing by.”

They named the outdoor classroom the “Wolf Den,” and a child named the nearby tent “The Dragons of Wonderland.”

“And then it was spring and we realized we were not going to be inside any more mornings,” Malloy said.

The Wolf Den had become their home.

“We must have one of the most beautiful outdoor classrooms in the country and feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience,” Malloy said. “It felt like a normal year, despite everything being different, because the most important pieces were all there — being together in person laughing, learning, and playing. There are so many times in a day when someone says something unbearably funny and all eyes meet for a second before we break out roaring in laughter. I can’t imagine having missed that.”

Most of last Thursday’s circus was performed on the deck of the preschool’s main building, so all 75-or-so members of the audience could see it clearly, but one of the final acts happened in the outdoor classroom.

As the audience gathered around the structure, children took turns spinning gracefully from large hoops attached to the ceiling. Sheltered from the elements and surrounded by their bookbags and other belongings for the day, they looked peaceful and secure and at home.

“That was probably my 11th circus and was absolutely the best yet,” Malloy said afterward. “I have always wished there was a way to have trapeze equipment on the deck but that was never going to happen. To find those oval hoop swings, have a place to hang them … and then see how the children created their own artistic moves on them has been so enjoyable to watch. This whole preschool community has just completely supported everything I wanted to do this year, and we all feel like magic happened.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

 

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