By Amanda Rogers
Six toddlers gather at small picnic tables under massive oak trees, coloring pictures. Nearby, a pack of 4-year-olds sits on a step and chows down on crackers, pre-kindergartners troop past, heading for a stand of trees, and the 3-year-olds take turns swinging on low-hanging ziplines.
A day at Anothen Preschool looks a lot like one at most other schools, except that almost all of the activities are outside.
“It’s nature-based learning with a little bit of Reggio (an educational philosophy that focuses on self-directed, experiential learning),” explained Rachelle Barta, director of Anothen Preschool, the only nature-based preschool in Mansfield/Arlington and one of a handful in DFW.
Outdoor education is gaining in popularity again after a surge at the turn of the 20th Century when parents worried what the Industrial Revolution was doing to their kids. These days, many parents are equally concerned about the toll technology is taking on youngsters.
Anothen Preschool opened in October 2020 with full classes of tots aged 2 to 5, and the classes are full again this year with a waiting list for the 49-student school. The school arose after parents with children at Camp Anothen began asking for a preschool, Barta said. The camp, which opened in 2015 on 22 tree-covered acres at Newt Patterson Road, also had a waiting list, even during the pandemic.
Although the school occupies 1 ½ acres in the center of the camp, preschoolers get to enjoy a lot of the benefits of Camp Anothen, like trails through the forest, pavilions and a pirate ship.
Students at Anothen Preschool learn at centers just like at other school, except that their centers are outside.
“The kids are outside 80 percent of the day,” Barta said. “We bring their counting outside, use sticks to write their name. Yesterday, they put in new mulch, so we created faces on the concrete and used some of the mulch. We use things in nature to create letters, numbers, find colors in nature.
“What does the grass feel like, what does a leaf sound like when it crunches,” Barta explained about the preschool’s lessons. “They get hot and sweaty, but they have fun.”
Most parents send their kids in older clothes that can get dirty and send an extra set, just in case.
“We don’t have normal play equipment,” Barta said. “We have the sandbox and a mud kitchen in the back yard so they can make mud pies. We take nature hikes through the forest every day. We do play outside in the rain as long as there’s no thunder and lightning. They jump in mud puddles and play in the mud.”
The preschool and camp are Christian-based, so students and campers learn about nature and religion. Preschool classes include centers with art, manipulatives, home living, sensory bins, science, gardening, physical education and chapel twice a month.
“When you put kids in nature, they explore on their own at their developmental ability,” said Courtney Evans, the school’s director of curriculum and education. “God creates us. When we stick our kids in nature, they’re exploring what he created. Our mission is to provide students the experience of a natural environment in order to discover the fundamental concepts necessary to grow in mind, body and Christ.”
Being outdoors also improves youngsters’ moods and mental health, said Joe Kowalski, director of Camp Anothen.
“Just being outside for 15 minutes a day increases your brain activity,” he said.
“Research shows that kids who spend more time outside develop mentally, emotionally, physically and educationally ahead,” she said.
With full classes and waiting lists, the preschool does plan to grow, Kowalski said. This year, Anothen Preschool added a class for 5-year-olds, and more expansion is being discussed.
Parents can send their youngsters for two days, three days or five days a week from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Before school care starts at 8 a.m. Prices range from $319 to $798 per month.
For more information about Anothen Preschool, go to https://www.anothenpreschool.org.
Mansfield, Texas, is a booming city, nestled between Fort Worth and Dallas, but with a personality all its own. The city’s 76,247 citizens enjoy an award-winning school district, vibrant economy, historic downtown, prize-winning park system and community focus spread across 37 square miles. The Mansfield Record is dedicated to reporting city and school news, community happenings, police and fire news, business, food and restaurants, parks and recreation, library, historical archives and special events. The city’s only online newspaper launched in September 2020 and will offer introductory advertising rates for the first three months at three different rates.