BY MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”
This quote from early childhood education and nature pedagogy expert Claire Warden is in regular use at Jan’s Preschool in Blenheim, where great emphasis is placed on exploration of the natural world.
Come rain, sun or wind, the children are encouraged to head outside and discover to their hearts’ content, from their own edible gardens, sandpits, water play, chickens and playground to excursions through nearby Harling Park in the Wither Hills.
Jan’s Preschool, on the corner of Wither and Howick Rds, opened last year when Blenheim woman Jan Matthews realised her vision of opening an early childhood centre providing a unique combination of Montessori values blended with the outdoors and nature, ‘as they are all very dear to my heart’.
It’s an approach Jan experienced first-hand during a visit to similar preschools in Perth, which ‘really cemented my vision of combining the philosophies’.
A residential house with private fenced gardens proved the perfect surroundings for Jan’s goal of providing a ‘small, homely, family-like environment’ where children can learn, explore and discover in a relaxed, natural setting at their own pace.
To that end, Jan has limited her roll to a maximum of 30 children, aged 0 to 6, so she and her staff – a mix of ECE registered, unregistered and Montessori teachers – can provide a high teacher-child ratio.
“I am aware of the stress levels preschool children can experience, and firmly believe that the natural environment helps them to de-stress. Personally, I reap these benefits myself when I exercise in the Wither Hills.”
Jan says her preschool, and the Montessori approach, places emphasis on building children’s independence and creating a ‘can-do’ attitude when learning life skills, literacy, maths, social skills and mixed age group friendships.
“I really value the Montessori way of life, and having come from a primary teacher background initially, I’m always focused on the children doing learning that prepares them for school and life.”
Jan’s passion for natural learning originally grew after discovering an interest in Scotland’s Forest Kindergartens and Claire Warden’s nature pedagogy.
“These kindergartens encourage children to learn in and through nature. Growing up as a typical ‘Kiwi kid’, I have always believed exercise and nature are important to the overall well-being of the child, and I believe that these are even more important in today’s society.”
In an increasingly digital world, Jan says families have told her of the time pressures they face which results in spending less time outdoors doing physical activities with their children – something many regret.
“Recent research backs this up: There has been a significant reduction in children’s levels of outdoor time and physical exercise.”
Jan’s passion is to change this concerning trend, by instilling an early love of nature in the children she teaches: “We encourage them to explore the outdoors, especially on our visits to Harling Park.”
“I want children at our centre to relish being active.”