Curious by Nature outdoor preschool adds new campus
The day the barred owl arrived, children at Curious by Nature outdoor preschool watched in rapt attention, listening quietly.
Back in the classroom, their questions and speculation about the mysterious visitor came spilling out. Head teacher Deborah Toney used the conversation as a springboard for learning that encompassed math, literacy, science and, most importantly, wonder.
“I’ve got 4-year-olds dissecting owl pellets with tweezers, matching the bones to the bone chart. I had to take it away from them at the end of the day because we ran out of time,” Toney said. “As a teacher, oh my gosh, that’s just a dream come true.”
More spots available at outdoor preschool
The opportunity for nature-based education will soon be available to more children. The school is expanding to a second campus on a 3.5-acre site of the former Arcadia Montessori School on Crescent Valley Drive.
“It’s just an amazing opportunity for our community. It’s an investment in early childhood education,” said school director Odette Alina.
The new campus will serve an additional 60 students. Priority will be given to families on the waitlist, some of whom have been waiting since early 2021. While some classes are full, there are still openings in most age groups.
Earlier this month, the school began accepting applications for spring and summer semester enrollment and filling staff positions. Prospective teachers and teachers’ assistants are encouraged to apply.
A solid foundation
The foundation, established in 2006, “works to strengthen our greater Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula communities through collaborative engagement” with partner organizations like PenMet Parks. In its early days, the foundation helped the parks district acquire land for Harbor Family Park, among other projects.
The foundation raises funds for endeavors aimed at a vibrant, healthy community. It advises donors who wish to make a meaningful impact now and in the future. And it advocates for services and support to meet diverse needs.
The foundation has five core focus areas: Arts & Culture, Education, Environment, Recreation and Social Capital (how people and communities work together to strengthen one another). Programs under its umbrella include the Gig Harbor Senior Center, GGHF EnviroCorps and GGHF Curious by Nature School.
Foundation’s big leap
Curious by Nature began in 2011 as a for-profit venture based at the former Gig Harbor Boys & Girls Club (now Pioneer Elementary), according to a Gig Harbor Life article. But the preschool struggled. Its original owner approached the foundation for help, according to Julie Ann Gustanski, a foundation co-founder and board president emeritus.
The foundation ultimately took on the foundering school, and the previous owner is no longer involved, Gustanski said.
“That was a big leap because the school was in financial deficit,” she said, “Basically, the foundation had to agree to absorb that, and it took us four years to come out of that and turn things around. And there was a lot of nail-biting during that period.”
The school conducts its outdoor activities in the city’s Adam Tallman Park and on nearby property formerly owned by Rush Construction.
Busting at the seams
Around 2012, the school began operations as a program of the foundation. In 2013, it hired Alina as the director. At that time, the school had about 23 students and three teachers.
The school now serves 124 students ages 2 to 6, plus a homeschool enrichment program for ages 6 to 9. Sessions run 3 hours and are offered one to four days per week, plus summer camps.
The school offers all-outdoors programs and hybrid programs that include some indoor classroom time.
Tuition varies, depending on age and number of days enrolled. The 10-month, two-day-per-week all-outdoor program for 3-year-olds, for example, is $3,000 per year ($300 per month), with a $100 supply fee. Need-based scholarships are available through the foundation’s fundraising arm.
There’s been a steady waiting list. And the demand has increased since the pandemic, as national attention turned to the benefits of outdoor activities and small cohorts of children.
“We are busting at the seams,” Toney said.
‘Your kids are gonna get muddy’
By good fortune, the property on Crescent Valley became available just in time to alleviate the growing pains. The foundation purchased the 3.5 acres and two-classroom school building for $1.495 million.
A trail out back leads to a salmon-bearing stream. There are woodlands and a meadow in which to play and explore.
Both the new property and current school site offer a unique opportunity for outdoor education, foundation officials say. While Peninsula School District has ventured into outdoor education, Curious by Nature is the only school in the greater Gig Harbor area that offers 100% outdoor learning (along with its hybrid model) regardless of the weather.
“One of the things we talk to our parents about when they’re coming into our program is the idea and the acceptance that your kids are gonna get muddy. They’re going to fall down. They might scrape their knees,” Toney said. “That’s an important piece of our program. We feel like that helps our children develop resilience, problem solving, risk management, risk assessment.”
The school requires students to come in weatherproof gear, equipped to brave the elements. It also hosts a lending “library,” stocked with out-grown items, to help families weather the cost of fully waterproof gear.
Program staff say skills related to resilience and problem-solving develop faster outside the confines of a classroom. They point to research documenting the value of outdoor education.
In addition, said Jud Morris, the foundation’s board president, it teaches them a sense of stewardship for nature and, according to a local pediatrician, reduces allergies.
The other characteristic of the school is its foundation in the Reggio Emelia educational philosophy, which advocates student-centered, self-directed, experiential learning. Unlike Montessori, which focuses on the individual learning experience, Reggio Emelia places high value on relationship-driven environments.
An evolving field of education
The school is modeled after outdoor schools in countries like Germany and Scotland, where the practice has been longstanding. That said, the field of outdoor education is ever-evolving. Curious by Nature teachers are continuously learning, said Amanda Pedrelli, facilitator of staff and program support.
“I have just seen so much growth and development in kids in this program,” Pedrelli said. “I’ve seen kids, especially during COVID, enter our program and leave an entirely different person just because we’ve been able to individualize their learning and see them as children who have rights and respect them and their interests. And we meet them where they are and let them grow from where they are to get them ready for their life.”
Families can learn about Curious by Nature at open house events 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 10 at the new campus, 13302 Crescent Valley Drive NW, and the current campus based at 7191 Wagner Way, Suite 101-102.
For more information, or to be added to the interest list, contact [email protected] or call (253) 514-6338, ext. 3.