This post is sponsored by Dodge Nature Center.
‘Go outside and play’ may be the parents’ mantra from days gone by, but it’s the daily reality at Dodge Nature Preschool. The three- to five-year-olds in this half-day program spend time outside every day, no matter the season or the weather. When they’re not hiking with journals in hand or studying nature up close with a magnifying glass, they’re back in their outdoor classroom.
“We’re always monitoring to make sure we’re keeping children safe, but we really embrace being outside as much as we can,” said Preschool Director Amy Warzybok.
Yes, that includes sub-zero days. That requires all the right gear—hats, gloves, boots, snow pants, and more—plus teachers being prepared and willing to adjust for the weather.
Why? Because exploring the outdoor world can do wonders for children’s development.
“Brain development scientists continue to indicate how important it is for children to be outside,” said Warzybok. “Motor development is a challenge with so much time on iPads these days for young children.”
The outdoors offer opportunities for cognitive development and problem solving, muscle and motor development, and social development.
“Kids will get social development at every preschool, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity to have these shared experiences out in nature together,” said Warzybok. “Like a group of children delighting together in spotting a deer—it’s the shared experiences your brain remembers.”
Plus, the kids love it. You can see the learning combined with fun, whether it’s developing motor skills as they climb trees, building empathy with Poppy the preschool chicken, or problem solving as the kids find a way up Challenge Hill.
“One of the great things about an outdoor space is it’s a yes space,” said Warzybok. “You can say yes to a lot more things outside than you can when you’re in an indoor space, because it just allows you to spread out and spill more things and splash more water and things like that.”
Making the Outdoors Accessible
All this outdoor learning isn’t just buzz words. The Dodge Nature Preschool program is highly rated with four out of four stars from Parent Aware, accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and certified as a Nature Explore Classroom. That all means it’s a top-quality program, which can raise questions about affordability for families. But Dodge Nature Center does everything they can to make their program accessible.
There’s an early learning scholarship program through the state, as well as a Dodge scholarship program. About 23% of the current students receive a scholarship. That’s important to the preschool because it increases their socioeconomic diversity and that results in better outcomes.
“We know our program will be better if our classrooms represent a diverse range of people,” said Warzybok. “Having those things—whether it’s diverse people or experiences or environments—that spark a question or curiosity for them early is going to help shape them and prepare them for life in a diverse world.”
How to Apply
Applications for priority enrollment in the 2022-2023 school year are due January 31. Families who need scholarships can apply as part of the online application process. Dodge can work with families who may have trouble with application fees.
There are also several virtual information sessions for parents in the coming weeks. It offers an overview of the program, including a video tour of the outdoor classroom space and a Q&A with current parents and teachers.