Reimagining preschool during Covid pandemic

By Sarah CR Clark

Joyful preschool children wiggled their way down Como Avenue to College Park one recent morning. Two teachers walked among them; one wearing a hiking backpack containing a speaker playing “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the other pulling a wagon of water bottles, snacks and extra hats and mittens.

The kids walked, jumped and rolled along the sidewalk, the boulevard and any snow piles nearby.

I saw beautiful chaos as I accompanied them . . . until a pedestrian appeared on the same sidewalk heading towards the children. Then all was orderly. Each child, without hesitation, quietly hopped off the sidewalk onto the grass and waited at a distance for the woman to pass before continuing to the park.

While much of the preschool life at St. Anthony Park Community Nursery School remains the same during this pandemic time, some things are very different.

When it became clear last summer that COVID-19 would continue to alter daily life, Community Nursery School Director Molly Breen began to reimagine preschool. The 70-plus- year-old preschool program is housed within Centennial Methodist’s SAP building (2200 Hillside). As new health and safety guidelines emerged, Breen shifted her program from a classroom based preschool to an “adventure preschool” that sees the outdoors as its primary classroom.

That shift seemed logical, given the health information that “we had a lot fewer transmissions of COVID-19 outdoors,” Breen explained. While students spend some time indoors (mainly lunch and rest), at least 75 percent of every day is spent outside.

“It took a ton of planning,” Breen reflected about going to outdoor learning and activities. She and her team tackled several logistical challenges including mobilizing and weatherproofing classroom materials and gear, helping all 34 kids navigate safely within fenceless urban parks and even procuring portable composting toilets with pop-up latrine tents. And they met the challenges.

“Now that we’ve moved out of the theoretical and into the practical, lived experience of outdoor learning, it’s such a joy and so naturally open-ended and liberating for kids, it was worth all of the additional planning and gear,” Breen said.

Sarah Langford, parent of two preschoolers, said she feels fortunate her kids attend SAP Community Nursery School.

“We love their safety considerations and how they were incorporating being outside into safety,” she said, recalling her enrollment decision. “In all honesty, the first few cold, rainy days I was a bit worried about them. That said, they came home happy! We send them in warm gear. It is amazing how much fun kids have outside.”

Similarly, SunMin May Hwang voiced enthusiasm for her son’s attending the Community Nursery School this year.

“JuneHan loves being outdoors more than I could ever imagine!” she said. “We thought the benefits of going to preschool outweighed the risk.” While this is JuneHan’s third year at the Community Nursery School, his mother said he doesn’t miss the way preschool was held before COVID-19.

Martha Duerr, a teacher at Community Nursery School, sees advantages in adventure based preschool. She has noticed preschoolers’ confidence and independence increasing as they begin to see themselves as “capable adventurers;” managing their own gear and navigating outdoor terrains. She has also seen fewer challenging behaviors.

“The open space seems to have a diffusing effect on some of our bigger personalities and we are not experiencing children reaching sensory overload as we do in an enclosed space,” Duerr said. “Additionally, the children have bonded over their shared adventuring and tend to work together rather than in competition with each other.”

Michael Townley, the mother of son Miles who attends the preschool, said she hopes that shifting to the outdoors becomes a significant movement.

“The success of the outdoor curriculum is really one of the silver linings of the pandemic, and proof that sometime unique circumstances push us to try things we wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “I hope this focus on outdoor integration becomes a permanent part of the preschool program, and that other schools see the success of it and follow suit.”

Meanwhile, back to the preschool adventurers. On that recent morning, they made it to College Park, stopping once to admire a neighbor’s goat sculpture. After showing me the rock where they once found coyote poop, the preschoolers scattered across the field and into the trees to play their favorite games such as “hide and seek” and “roll down the hill.” While so much about preschool at SAP Community Nursery School is different this year, so much is wonderfully still the same.

Sarah CR Clark is a resident of St. Anthony Park and a regular Bugle freelance writer.

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