MIDDLEBURY TWP. — When Emily McCall decided to found a nature-based preschool on her four-acre property in Ovid five years ago, she thought, “What do I have to lose?”
Earlier this month, McCall was named runner-up for the North American Preschool Educator of the Year Award, presented by Discovery Toys, a company focused on helping children learn and grow through play.
McCall was one of 53 preschool educators nominated for the award, intended to recognize those who “effectively employ techniques to develop the traits that today’s young minds will need to become the lead contributors in tomorrow’s world,” according to a Discovery Toys press release. McCall was one of four to earn a runner-up designation, receiving a certificate of recognition , $100 for personal use and $150 in free toys from the company for her efforts.
“It feels really affirming. I’m used to being here on my own doing my thing and doing what I know that they need and I feel we’re kind of in our own isolated bubble…to have the spotlight on our program just feels great,” McCall said. “It made me happy to know that other people care about their learning through play as much as I do and that people can see the benefit of it. There are a lot of people, of course, who want their kid to be at the top academically and they think that needs to start as soon as possible, but they don’t often understand that it has to come the natural way. It has to come through play, it has to come as the kids are ready for it.”
McCall founded Natural Learners Preschool in 2014, after moving to Ovid from Owosso. She had previously taught preschool for ten years in several public school districts, including Morrice, Perry and Owosso, and served as a youth pastor at the Owosso First Church of the Nazarene. The decision to move things outdoors came with her children in mind, McCall said.
“When we moved out here, I was teaching in the public schools, teaching preschool at the time and I was having another baby and I thought gosh I want to give my children everything that I know that they need, and I want to give it to other kids too and so I took all of the experience I had from years of teaching and poured it into this program here.”
“I know that children learn best through play, and I know that nature is good for the whole child, so I wanted to kind of combine what I did in the public school setting—which is great, public schools are awesome—with being able to have them out in nature too, so we kind of have the best of both worlds here.”
At Natural Learners, McCall mixes her former public school curriculum with what nature has to offer to promote play-based learning. The kids are outdoors for a portion of each day, unless there are severe weather risks, such as lightning or frostbite. Outdoor activities include a mud kitchen, complete with real pots, pans, and a salvaged sink, caring for the chickens and wildflower gardens, as well as exploring the woodland trails out back and trekking through the mud.
McCall has also been teaching kids about honeybees, even going so far as to lure in her own colony this spring.
“When they are doing stuff like that, they are building their trunk control, which is detrimental to them having to actually sit in the classroom,” McCall said. “We take kids and we put them in a preschool that’s all academic and we’re like ‘sit there and learn your letters,’ you know, they need to sit down for this long length of time, but they actually have to build their core muscles to be able to sit still like that for a long time, so they’re doing that here, getting ready for kindergarten.”
In addition to being outdoors, kids participate in work time inside McCall’s home, where they can choose an activity of their choice, such as playing with building blocks or reading. The children are encouraged to plan out their work time, and are asked later on to discuss what they did. McCall said the planning and recall aspect helps kids learn to develop a plan and follow it through, an important life skill.
Kids also are led through large-group time, where they participate in nursery rhymes and games, and table time, where McCall leads them through an activity to reinforce a particular skill, such as counting, for example.
Natural Learners Preschool is open to children age 3 to 5, and runs the first week of September through the last week of May. The preschool follows the Ovid-Elsie public schools schedule for holidays and cancellations. The school runs three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, with a morning session, 8:30-11:30 a.m., and an afternoon session, 12:30-3:30 p.m. Each session is capped at six children. McCall said the small class size is intentional.
“I feel like doing this really truly gives the kids the space that they need to grow. I can give them more attention, and I get to know them personally. I know their favorite colors, I know their favorite food, I know all about them. I mean, the basic philosophy in child development is you have to connect with a child before they can connect with you well enough to truly learn. Like when you were in school and you had a really lousy teacher, you know. I can remember the lousy teacher but I can’t remember anything from their class. They were scary. You get into fight or flight instead of really connecting and learning.”
There are two open spots remaining for Natural Learners this fall, according to McCall. In 2014, she only had three kids for the program. Now, word of mouth has spread to the point that she no longer has to hold an open house. Instead, she schedules individual visits with those interested in enrolling.
For McCall, the most rewarding aspect is watching kids learn and grow.
“The connections with kids and families and connecting them together, watching them grow and thrive, that’s the greatest part of it all,” McCall said. “I will never forget the first time that I saw my preschoolers run out to the back and they were so excited and I just said to myself ‘This is so good.’ This is so good for them and it’s so good to see that what God has given me can be good for so many more people. We have this house and we are so thankful for it and now we get to kind of share the wealth, the wealth that God gifted me with teaching and with this home.”
For more information about Natural Learners Preschool, call (810) 610-1008.