Parents of preschoolers face a big question: how do we best get our child ready for success in kindergarten? Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center has a creative new answer, one involving fresh air, trees, birds, animals, and maybe even a few bugs! Since last fall, Eagle Bluff — in partnership with Head Start in Fillmore County — has been offering a Nature Preschool for children ages 3-5. Next fall that program will be open to the community at large.
“We’re super excited to be able to serve children and their families in this way,” says Colleen Foehrenbacher, Executive Director at Eagle Bluff, a year-round environmental learning center located six miles from Lanesboro. “All kinds of good things happen for children when you get them outside in the fresh air and help them connect with nature at an early age. Studies show those experiences stay with them and help them become environmentally sensitive for a lifetime.”
This Nature Preschool — the first-ever of its kind in southeast Minnesota — is a school-year program that encourages curiosity, exploration and discovery of the natural world. Under the direction and supervision of specially trained staff and teachers, kids will spend as much time outside as possible in the forests, prairie, ponds and other natural areas at Eagle Bluff. There are more than 250 acres of restored prairie and mixed hardwood forest on their campus that overlooking the Root River Valley.
The Nature Preschool takes into account Minnesota’s industrial strength winters with special equipment and supplies. “We’re getting what we need, like boots, rain suits, sleds, wagons and other preschool-sized items, to help the children enjoy the outdoors as much as possible,” explains Foehrenbacher. “When the weather is just too cold we’ll go inside to utilize our newly adapted space in the Schroeder building. We’re adding a new bathroom and installing laminate flooring to go along with our indoor resources like our indoor climbing wall and places for the children to eat lunch and take naps.”
The preschoolers will also have opportunities to interact with Eagle Bluff’s captive wildlife, including various reptiles and birds of prey. An outdoor “Nature Playspace” is being built with younger children in mind, using natural materials such as logs, natural vegetation, and the surrounding landscape. “We will put a fence around the playspace for safety, but even that will have a natural feel to it, rather than plastic or metal,” says Foehrenbacher.
She points out that quality, trained staff are key to the preschool’s success. “We already have two excellent Eagle Bluff instructors involved in the preschool and we’re planning to hire a full-time educator trained in outdoor education and in working with this specific age-group. In addition, other Eagle Bluff staff will be rotated into the program at various points.”
Eagle Bluff’s Nature Preschool began operating with local Head Start last September and is currently serving 10 children daily. When it opens to the community in the fall of 2021, enrollment is expected to double. “Even with COVID challenges and needed protocols and modifications, it’s been a great year,” says Foehrenbacher
Key local partnerships are making all of this possible, she says. “The Lanesboro Area Foundation, the Preston Area Foundation, the Rochester Foundation, and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) have all provided grants for equipment, the new bathroom facilities, an adapted classroom, and more. We’re so thankful for their wonderful support.”
The Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center is a non-profit organization established in 1978 that provides accredited education programs and outdoor adventures to more than 16,000 children, adults and families and every year.
Keeping the Nature Preschool financially accessible for all families is a key priority, says Foehrenbacher. “We want to provide a place where all children, regardless of their family’s economic situation, can have access to a nature-based, high quality kindergarten readiness program. Scholarship assistance will be part of that.
“Our Nature Preschool is such a great fit with Eagle Bluff’s mission to provide transformative experiences which empower people to care for the earth and each other. We’ve been developing this preschool idea for years and it’s wonderful to see it become reality. The kids are and will be having so many wonderful, life-building experiences outside in nature, where they can do hands-on exploration, learn, and have fun, all at the same time.”
To learn more about Eagle Bluff Learning Center and the Nature Preschool, visit their website at eaglebluffmn.org. Specific materials and registration information for preschool opportunities will be available in coming weeks. Their phone number is (507) 467-2437.