Four-year-old Hazel Morris is good at finding things, says her mom, Stephanie Roberts. Her fine-motor skills have always been good, too.
That keen eye and firm grasp helped Hazel spot and hold onto a wriggling toad Monday morning at Lime Hollow Nature Center, holding it up for scrutiny by a group of fellow youngsters.
This is just the sort of experience that Lime Hollow Forest Pre-K hopes to provide for 3- to 5-year-olds now that it is officially a state-licensed day care facility as of Aug. 27. Monday was the first day of the state-licensed program, though Lime Hollow ran a pilot program of the day care for the past two years.
The sun was shining and the air was a (relatively) balmy 55 degrees, but the youngsters will still be outdoors with the rain, wind and snow.
They’ll wear extra layers, said Maryfaith Miller, the school’s director.
Char Coffey of Rochester brought 3-year-old Solara DeVoe of Freeville, her granddaughter, explaining the outdoor school was just the setting her daughter and son-in-law, Courtney and Chad, were looking for. They live in a solar-powered home, an “Earth ship” as Coffey called it, and Chad DeVoe teaches an Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES class at Lime Hollow.
“They wanted her to be able to have this environment,” Coffey said. “They believe in bringing the classroom outdoors.”
Achieving the state license was no easy task after three years of pilot programs, said Lime Hollow Executive Director Glenn Reisweber.
The state and Lime Hollow were back and forth on many topics, especially that of erecting a fence, which Reisweber did reluctantly to abide by a requirement for a safe play area where youngsters can’t wander off.
The center is licensed to have up to 18, but has just nine until an internal wall is built separating classroom space, Reisweber said. It operates with a ratio of one teacher to six kids.
The outdoor setting is the first of its kind in Central New York, he said, and perhaps the state, a claim the state Office of Children and Family Services could not verify.
“If you take a look at the standard day care model, there is required to be some outside time … it could be 10 percent or 30 percent of the time, and then they go back inside,” Reisweber said. “We take the model of say 90 percent inside and 10 percent outside, and we’re the other way around, 10 percent inside and 90 percent outside.”
The children spent Monday exploring the outdoors, or the “forest home,” as Miller called it.
On the first day, explained Miller, she was going to stick to the art meadow, where kids could safely explore without wandering too far. She wanted to get to know the group of kids better, before going on hikes, to learn which were “edge walkers,” the ones who will wander from the group and just keep going.
She suspected Solara, whose mane of unkempt blonde curls was often seen at the fringes of the group Monday, could be one.
“I want to get to know them better before going into the forest,” Miller said.
As the year progresses, the older kids will be broken into a separate group and offered a more structured program, with alphabetic and numeric review. But the younger children will be encouraged to let their imaginations run free.
Storybooks are not used. Instead, children huddled around teacher Anthony Vicente, who told them of a “sit spot” he found in the forest, where a dragonfly landed on his chest and a toad hopped on his foot. The point was to encourage the children to seek those experiences.
And they do, Miller said. A 3-year-old can sit still for up to 15 minutes, just experiencing the natural world, learning what bird calls mean, watching ordinary and not-so ordinary animals.
The center does have an indoor classroom with a nap space and bathrooms — other state requirements, Reisweber said.
During the coldest months, kids will come indoors to get warm and eat lunch, then bundle up and go back out again. Miller said last year, kids were indoors only five partial days of the whole year.
And Solara will have all the right gear, said her grandmother, including a spare set of clothes and a nap mat.