GAINESVILLE, Ga. - Elachee Nature Science Center is drafting plans for a nature-based preschool that would be the first of its kind in the Southeast.
"We've become a culture of indoor people," said Elachee President and CEO Andrea Timpone. "We truly believe that getting children outdoors at any age, and particularly at an early age, helps to build a greater understanding and hopefully they will mature into environmentally literate citizens."
Elachee is moving forward with a projected opening date of fall 2012, but Timpone said a lot of pieces need to fall into place before the preschool becomes a reality. The center is running a feasibility study, funded through a $25,000 grant from the Waterfall Family Foundation.
The idea has been discussed at Elachee for quite some time. Two years ago, a group from the center traveled to the nature-based Teton Science Schools in Colorado and three consultants from similar programs have also visited Elachee to share information about their schools.
The concept is based on having an outdoor classroom, with students predominantly outside during the day.
Traditional subjects will still be taught and Timpone said "cognitive, physical, social, emotional and creative" development will all be addressed.
Many of the leading nature-based preschools are located in the Midwest where harsh weather doesn't keep teachers from leading outdoor classes. Timpone said Georgia has ideal weather for a program of this kind.
"One of the consultants that visited us made a statement that was kind of interesting," Timpone said. "She said, 'There is no such thing as bad-weather, just poor clothing choices."'
Rather than having a traditional playground, the kids will play and learn in an open area where they can "get their hands dirty," said Jock Hornor, Elachee board chairman.
"Kids like to play," he said. "Instead of traditional swings and slides, rather than a structured environment, it's an unstructured environment."
Hornor said he believes the nature-based program will foster creativity and improve social and independent thinking skills.
As she attended an Elachee home school event Wednesday with her child, Vicki Strine said she would support a nature-based educational experience.
"Children learn better by firsthand experience than in a classroom sometimes," she said.
Details are still being hammered out, but Timpone expects the preschool to initially be held two or three days a week for a few hours each session.
Depending on the program's popularity, it could expand to morning and afternoon classes or a three-day schedule for 4-year-olds and a two-day schedule for 3-year-olds. Classes would be capped at 16 students.
The center is considering opening a pilot class this fall with about eight students.
The feasibility study will be completed by the end of the summer and a final proposal will be presented to the nature center's board, possibly in August, Timpone said. Then the center will take on the task of raising funds through a capital campaign to complete necessary renovations.
Timpone said a current exhibition hall will be converted into a classroom for the preschool.
"We think the interest level is high," she said. "It's going to require not just us figuring out if we're going to do it, but how we're going to do it."