On a cold and rainy morning in early May in Michigan, Katelyn Ver Woert Egnatuk ’13 pulls on her boots and rain gear and heads outside. Thirteen 4-year-olds, also in full outdoor garb, follow her like ducklings.
For Egnatuk and her little learners, it’s just another day of preschool, during which the class will spend the majority of their day outside.
“Nature-based preschool” is a growing phenomenon across the U.S., but West Side Christian School (WSCS) in Grand Rapids is one of the earliest originators of the model in Michigan.
The vision for the program was inspired by Brian Dyk ’97, a WSCS middle school science teacher, who saw the promise of such a program years ago but died unexpectedly before it reached fruition.
“God used Brian to prepare us for this,” said Janet Lenger Staal ’98, director of outdoor/ nature-based education at WSCS. “There was so much potential here that was not being utilized.”
The school sits adjacent to a small woodland, which is owned by a neighboring church. It was a perfect fit for a program that was waiting to flourish, according to Staal.
“I knew how I learned science best, and it was not from taking notes from an overhead,” said Staal. “I learned hands-on. I wanted to foster that same love of learning in children using the tools Calvin gave me through the education department.
“God brought all of the pieces together at the right time for this program to happen,” she said, including a plot study of the woodland completed more than a decade ago by Calvin students for a class project.
Staal came to WSCS following a stint as environmental education consultant at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids. At WSCS she found a board that was willing to try something new and a dynamic young teacher in Egnatuk.
“I started doing a lot of National Geographic-type reading,” Egnatuk said. “And then I just fell in love with it. When you’re walking outside and there’s that little ‘aha’ moment, that little piece of learning, I love that.”
The program also provides some interesting challenges—besides the weather. “You can’t just come in, teach, and leave,” said Egnatuk. “I have to go outside myself to gather things. I have to have enough sticks to make letters with, and enough pine cones to count, and enough white pine needles to tally and make white pine tea with.”
Egnatuk also enjoys teaching Bible stories outside. “I don’t think Jesus taught in a building very much,” she said. “He was always using examples for his teaching based on what he grabbed—like wheat—as he was walking by. It’s so easy to teach Bible when we can say that everything we just learned about, God created that.”
The preschool program, which is in its fourth year and at capacity with a total of 36 students, is beginning to influence education in the school’s upper grades as well.
“We want it to continue,” said Staal. “It is West Side’s mission that every grade is required to go outside for a certain amount of time. You can’t deny the benefits, and with this nature focus, the school has a new identity.”
Another Calvin alum, WSCS’s head of school An Kurosu ’10, is excited about the program’s potential, “We are truly blessed to be able to use and expand our campus to explore God’s classroom, and I am so excited to see the curiosity and continued growth in the students, staff, and community.”
Staal believes that their education at Calvin helped prepare her and Egnatuk for their respective positions. “Calvin empowered us to effectively teach in whatever role God puts us,” she said.
Staal is sharing what she has learned with other schools in the area as a consultant. “It’s exciting to be a part of this worldwide movement,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation that they carry with them. Once kids get to experience the world, they’re learning how to love it. And you can’t ask kids to take care of the earth if they haven’t first learned to love it.”