Hartley Nature Preschool

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UMD Alumni Teach at New Outdoor Preschool

Kaitlin Erpestad playing with the preschoolers outside  
Kaitlin Erpestad playing outside with the preschoolers  
Caitlin Johnson playing with the preschoolers outside  
Caitlin Johnson watching as the preschoolers roll pumpkins down the hill to learn the concepts of gravity and physics  
Dani French playing with the preschoolers outside  
Dani French and a few preschoolers inspecting a pumpkin  

“Play is learning,” said Dani French, lead teacher and one of three UMD alumni working at the Hartley Nature Preschool.

In addition to French, Caitlin Johnson is an assistant teacher, and Kaitlin Erpestad is a lead teacher and the preschool director. Each of them graduated with different degrees from UMD, which have helped them in their teaching at the school.

The Hartley Nature preschool, located in the Hartley Nature Center, opened this past fall. The preschool enrolls children from ages three to five-years-old, who learn everything they need to know for kindergarten while playing outside.

French completed the early childhood program at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. She also holds two bachelor's degrees: one in Child Development from Concordia University and the other in Unified Early Childhood Studies from UMD.

“The special education part of the UMD curriculum has helped out with my teaching,” said French.

Johnson graduated in 2012 from UMD with a bachelor's in Recreational/ Outdoor Education.

“The UMD outdoor education program got me involved with community,” said Johnson. “It made me want to stay in Duluth and do more things in the Duluth community. ”

Erpestad has a bachelor's in Social Studies Education from St. Olaf College. In 2013, she graduated with a master’s degree in Environmental Education from UMD.

What They Are Learning

In 2012, a feasibility study showed a high demand for preschool options in the city of Duluth. The study also revealed that there was a high interest in preschools that were nature-based.

“There are a few family or independent nature preschools in the Duluth area,” said Erpestad. “This is the only nature preschool in the Duluth area that is licensed as a child care center.”

The preschool's mission is to inspire life-long connections with nature through education, play, and exploration in a premier preschool environment that supports the whole child’s development while preparing children for school. 

“I love watching the kids explore outside and seeing their awe of nature,” said French. “The fresh set of eyes gives me a new perspective of the natural setting.”  

“Outside they are calmer,” said Erpestad. “They can scream and run around which cannot be allowed inside.”

“They are becoming so much more aware,” said Johnson. “They are noticing things around them. It has also been amazing to watch them grow and start to have a love for the outdoors. Some of the kids, when they came to us, didn’t like being dirty and would cry after they got dirt in their shoes or on their hands. ”

Inside, the preschoolers have calendar time, they learn how to write their names, and do art projects. Outside, they learn how to regulate their emotions, develop their decision making skills, how to be social and play with others, and how to use their five senses.  They also learn math and science concepts through playing. 

“Rolling pumpkins down a hill, for example, teaches them about gravity and physics,” said Erpestad. “Building sand castles helps teach them measurements. Counting who has more sticks, helps with math concepts. However, instead of saying they are learning this or that, they are just having fun and developing a love for nature. ”

In the future, the preschool hopes to offer opportunities for environmental education and early childhood education students from local colleges and universities to learn about the importance of incorporating nature in early childhood education through teaching experiences and observations. Hartley Nature Center is also thinking about possibilities for expanding both the preschool offerings and the space for the preschool in future years. 

For more information, go to the Hartley Nature Preschool website.




Written by Katarina Menze, October 2014.


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UMD News Features editor, Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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