Not many classrooms have large rocks as seats, soft earth instead of tile floors and dense trees as sheltering walls.
But the Elachee Nature Academy has offered such an outdoor learning space for preschoolers for years, and this fall, the program will include a kindergarten and first-grade classroom as well.
It’s the only accredited, nature-based school in the region, allowing children 50 percent of their school day in the classroom and the other 50 percent in lessons outdoors at Elachee Nature Science Center.
The preschool is now in its fourth year, according to Kim Marks, development and communications director for Elachee. It is housed in a wing of the nature science center, with both outdoor learning spaces and a large, bright classroom with lots of natural light and high ceilings.
This learning environment was recreated for the new, joint kindergarten and first-grade classroom as well.
“This was originally office space, when we moved in 26 years ago,” said Andrea Timpone, president and CEO of Elachee Nature Science Center. “The room has been renovated a couple of times into different classrooms and storage space and exhibit space. Most recently, it was full of the bat exhibit.”
Timpone said the space is called Bruner Classroom for Robert Bruner, who was president of Elachee for six years. The large room now has four large windows that match those in the preschool classroom.
“In the renovations, we added this bank of windows,” Marks said. “It looks out into the woods and over the outdoor learning space.”
The outdoor learning space was also added, featuring large, flat rocks for children to sit on in a small clearing by the building.
“It’s like a little, natural amphitheater with rocks,” Timpone said. “And there will be a deck or little platform as well.”
The kindergarten and first-grade class will be led by certified teacher Sheri Ruether. Ruether is a doctoral candidate, whose research will include nature-based learning.
“My dissertation is finding out the reasons why teachers aren’t using the outdoors for environmental education,” Ruether said. “There’s wide open space out there, or opportunities just around any school building. So I’m trying to find out why everyone isn’t doing this — is it the training, are they afraid of snakes or spiders, is it too hot or too cold?”
Marks said this is no issue at Elachee. Rain or shine, children have lessons outdoors.
“There’s a lot you can learn in the rain,” she said.
Ruether and the preschool educators use “child-directed and discovery-based curriculum” that meets Georgia learning standards, according to Marks. The program is SACS/AdvancED accredited.
Marks said the decision to expand followed a request from several families in the preschool program. One family had a younger child in preschool and an older child entering kindergarten, who wished for more continuity.
Rhonda Bailey, director of schools for Elachee, said the expansion “is particularly exciting,” because it gives future students the chance to be in nature-based education for four to five years.
Elachee Nature Academy follows the Hall County School District academic calendar, and its first day of school will be Aug. 5. Enrollment details and tuition plans are available at www.ElacheeNatureAcademy.org.
Marks said she believes anyone who sees the original preschool space, the new kindergarten and first-grade classroom and the outdoor learning spaces would understand why parents requested the expansion.
“It’s just beautiful,” she said.