The preschool at Boulevard Elementary begins its day just like many other preschools. Children hang up their backpacks, sit down for breakfast and sing a few songs with their teacher. Then their teacher tells them about the weather.
Once Elizabeth Rayl, the preschool teacher, tells them what the weather will be like, students proceed to the hallway, where they put on whatever clothing is appropriate for the day.
On Thursday, it was sprinkling but the weather was relatively warm, so they just needed their rain boots and a rain jacket. Once they were decked out in their rain gear, they headed outside, where they immediately jumped into a big mud puddle.
In this preschool, students spend the entire morning in an outdoor classroom, where they are encouraged to get messy, climb trees and dig for worms. It is unique for the Kokomo School Corporation and for Howard County.
The first outdoor preschool in the area started last year with an inaugural group of 4 year olds. Now as kindergartners that class continued in the program, and a new group of preschoolers took their place. Each group sticks with the same teacher both years, before going into first grade at Boulevard.
The outdoor classroom, housed between Boulevard and the high school, is set in an old log cabin and an enclosed field. Inside the space, children can play and learn at a variety of stations. At one, they’re encouraged to make culinary delicacies using, you guessed it, mud. At another, they learn to balance by walking across a sort of teeter totter, and at another they learn how to climb trees.
Though each station seems fun for the children, they’re designed to help them with their gross motor skills, like learning how to balance. The children also are encouraged to learn how to put on their coats and boots by themselves.
These skills are especially prevalent now, as the United Way of Howard County focuses on preparing children for kindergarten. As part of that effort, the organization worked with kindergarten teachers to develop a readiness assessment, which looks at whether children can do things like eat on their own and ask for help when needed. According to teachers, these skills are essential for kids to be successful in kindergarten.
The children go outside rain or shine, warm weather or cold. The school lives by one philosophy, said Principal Dave Buckalew: “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.”
As they enroll in each new class, the school goes through a screening process to make sure that both the parents and the children understand what they’re walking into. They want to make sure the parents are OK with their children coming home covered in mud, and that the children are OK getting messy.
For Amy Huffman, the program seemed like a perfect fit for her son, Hudson Weaver. When she heard about it last year, she couldn’t stop talking about it. Her son was enrolled at a different preschool, but she wanted an opportunity for him to learn outside.
“Now, when he comes home, it’s different,” she said.
He talks about what he found outside and the ways he explored throughout the day, and he seems much more curious, Huffman said.
The class also seems like a family, she said, and this is evident each morning when the class says hello to each other. They look each other in the eye and say good morning to each person individually. On the field, they take turns at each station and help each other build forts or make mud pies.
Huffman said the experience was one she couldn’t pass up.
“I think kids need to get dirty,” she said. “They need to explore, play, have adventures.”
Some children are hesitant to get messy when they first enter the program, Buckalew said. Some walk timidly up to that mud puddle, afraid to jump in because they think their parents will be upset when they come home with dirty clothes. But after a few days, the children are anxious to jump in, he said.
The district is working to ensure that the preschool is designated a level 3 on the Paths to Quality scale, which rates preschools around Indiana. The level 3 qualification would allow the preschool to accept vouchers through the On My Way Pre-K program, which would mean more low-income families could send their children to the preschool.
They hope to have the qualification by next school year. To find out more about the school, call 765-455-8070.