Preschoolers won’t spend much time inside the classroom this fall at Aldo Leopold Nature Center. In fact, interacting with the outdoors is how they’ll spend most of their time learning.
The center, tucked away on a patch of land in Monona that includes a series of wetlands, prairies and woodlands, is opening a play-based, nature preschool this fall that officials hope will help further the group’s overall mission of educating future generations about the natural world around them.
“It strengthens our mission of engaging and educating current and future generations by empowering them to protect the natural world,” said Cara Erickson, a spokeswoman for ALNC. “We believe getting children connected to nature at a young age is important and essential not only for a child themselves but for our environment.”
Officials are currently racing to finish several renovations to the main building at the nature center, including updating old exhibit areas to serve as classrooms and other learning areas for students. The building, which was first built in the early 1990s, won’t expand its carbon footprint through the renovations as they are simply redesigning current spaces.
While several preschools exist in Dane County and other parts of the state that incorporate nature activities and environmentally focused curriculua, ALNC’s nature preschool has particularly rich resources. The school sits on an expansive natural area, and in addition to the roughly 20 acres of land adjacent to the building, ALNC is connected to a conservation park and woodland park, leaving nearly 100 acres of natural space to work with.
“There’s a lot of built-in opportunities with the land that this center sits on,” said Mike Strigel, ALNC president and executive director. “I think a lot of preschools are also trying to do similar things, but the land here is such a rich environment and a great asset and opportunity.”
Two classrooms will house the preschool at ALNC, with each having the capacity for 16 students at a time. A full, five-day preschool option is available, as well as a three-days-a-week option in the mornings and afternoons. There's also a twice-a-week morning option.
The ALNC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, though area residents have been visiting the land the center sits on since the mid 20th-century. Erickson said the ALNC has grown significantly since it first opened its doors in 1994, going from serving 4,000 visitors per year to more than 70,000 visitors in 2018.
Creating an entire preschool felt like the natural next step for ALNC nature center director Virginia Wiggen and preschool director Tara Von Dollen. The Wonder Bugs Preschool Program was started several years ago for children ages 2-5 and was wildly successful, according to Wiggen. Families suggested that the center then launch an entire preschool, an idea that ALNC started seriously considering several years ago.
Central to the preschool’s identity is keeping the curriculum play-based and getting students out in nature roughly 80 percent of the time. It’s an extension of a current trend in early childhood education to allow students more time to learn through play, Von Dollen said.
“There has been a lot of importance placed on academics at a younger and younger age, so you have the 4K programs come along. Madison’s (4K) is a play-based program which means they’ve realized it’s really important not to push academics on children and that they learn while they’re playing,” Von Dollen said. “Play is learning. There are other areas that still focus so heavily on academics, and there is a pushback, I think, in recognizing that just because you are trying to tell someone at a younger age what they need to learn, it’s not going to be super effective. The best thing to do for a young child is to let them explore.”
The hope is to have these preschool students become budding scientists through exploring the nature center and spending time in its play-based curriculum.
“I think more and more, people are recognizing early childhood development and how valuable this type of learning is,” Von Dollen said. “While we have been a nature center, the recognition of that value is where the demand is. That’s how the Wonder Bugs program grew, and I think people are realizing this is a great fit, and that nature and early childhood go together.”
The tuition rate at the school is on a sliding scale determined by families’ income level. There are also tuition assistance grants available. Strigel said fundraising for building renovations has gone better than expected, which will hopefully leave more room to focus on tuition assistance for families in the coming years.
“It’s definitely our goal to make the preschool more representative of the city and town we live in and our community,” Wiggen said. “I think that’s a really important thing for our families and for our kids. We don’t want this to be a bubble.”