The concept is a little like The Magic School Bus: a colorful classroom inside a school bus that can take students anywhere, all while they learn and engage with the world around them. The new learning center on wheels won’t take inquisitive kids inside the human body or into outer space, but it will be used to teach Dallas kids the value of nature, sustainability and the innate magic of growing your own food.
Seed Preschool, a mobile school inside a bus that will be stationed primarily at the Twelve Hills Nature Center in Oak Cliff, is the creation of Jennifer Stuart, a longtime early-childhood educator, yogi, master naturalist and advocate of sustainable living. She wanted to open a preschool founded on outdoor education and was looking at permanent spaces with large gardens but found that rent was cost-prohibitive. That’s when she decided the best alternative would be a mobile preschool that she could park at the nature center in a partnership with Twelve Hills.
“Children who appreciate nature will feel more connected to where their food comes from and to the world around them,” Seed Preschool’s mission statement reads. “It all starts with a seed.”
The preschool is now enrolling students ages 3 to 6 for morning preschool and ages 6 to 9 for afternoon homeschooling. Last week, Stuart held an open house on the vernal equinox, inviting kids and parents to come by and check it out.
The bus is warm and inviting, painted a cheerful minty green inside, and it has rugs and floor pillows for seating. Stuart outfitted the small space with shelving filled with games, toys, craft supplies and learning tools of every shape and color. It’s everything you’d find in a typical preschool except downsized, since space is a commodity.
Despite all that the bus has to offer, Stuart says the classroom will take place mostly outside at the nature center. Stuart points to the “forest kindergarten” outdoor education model as an inspiration; it’s popular in Europe and takes place completely outdoors. She said she wanted to have the flexibility of having an indoor-outdoor space when weather is bad, and the bus will be air-conditioned for the hot spring and summer months.
The curriculum will focus on seasonal exploration. Mornings will start with yoga and stretching followed by a hike to collect specimens and documentation. Twelve Hills has hosted several “preschool walks” already, taking children through the preserve to learn about native birds and seasonal changes to the prairie, and the preserve recently hosted a nature walk where curious attendees learned about the edible plants native to the area.
“We’ll talk about birds or hibernation, depending on the season,” Stuart says. “Leaves in the fall, and what the animals do in the winter. Now that it’s spring, we’d be looking for flowers on our walks. Bluebonnets are blooming. We’d be looking for new life coming, baby birds, nests. It’s all tied to the seasons. It’s not necessarily lessons, it’s self-discovery. They see it and discover it, and we talk about it.”
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Stuart comes from a Montessori background, which emphasizes “independence, freedom within limits and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical and social development,” according to the Montessori education Wikipedia page. A large tenet of Montessori schooling is discovery through self-directed activities.
“One size does not fit all ... We can have someone sculpting some clay, and somebody painting something, and somebody drawing something, and somebody reading. I don’t like them to have to do the same thing at the same time,” Stuart says. “They will develop things along the way that they want to explore.”
Besides giving children an avenue for self-discovery, the preschool offers practical lessons on things like “bee etiquette” from the “Bee Marm” Susan Pollard of the Texas Honeybee Guild. She’ll talk to kids about how bees are integral to our food system and what to do if they’re stung.
“Nature is the very best classroom,” Stuart says. “That will be an important part of this program is respecting nature, and understanding that was here first. We’re visiting, really.”