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Rooted & Free Nature School takes the classroom into nature in an effort to cultivate lifelong learners.
The preschool, held at Camp Kirchenwald, 1 Cut Off Road, is in its second year of operation and is already full for its third year.
The preschool runs from the beginning of September until the end of May, since it leases from a summer camp and does not offer summer programming.
“I kind of go way back to the Camp Kirchenwald location,” Christie McKelvie, who was a camp counselor and a camper there in the late 1980s and early ’90s, said. McKelvie was born and raised in Lebanon County and lived here until she moved to Dauphin County about seven months ago.
With a bachelor’s degree in elementary and kindergarten education and a master’s degree in science education, McKelvie co-founded the Rooted & Free Nature School. She is also a director and teacher at the preschool.
“Rooted & Free is born from a dream that I had back when my oldest, who’s now 16, when he was preschool-aged. And I was just thinking I wished there was something out there,” McKelvie said.
“As it was time, then, for my oldest to start getting ready for kindergarten, I was starting to see … what was expected of them and realizing that there’s a lot of bigger pieces that are needed in preschool than just your ABCs and 123s.”
McKelvie went on to have three more children and was unable to start a preschool until recently, when her dream became a reality.
“The name, Rooted & Free, is the whole idea: they’re rooted in nature, and they’re free to learn, and that’s really our whole mission,” McKelvie said.
Read more: Rooted and Free Nature School provides unique educational curriculum, plans to start offering preschool
Rooted & Free is primarily open two days a week for a half-day program. The preschool has two classes, each capped at 12 students. There are 19 students enrolled for the 2022-23 term.
In addition to their nature preschool, Rooted & Free has two other classes: Explore Together, which is designed for caregivers and preschoolers, toddlers, and infants, and Forest Fridays! for first- through sixth-graders.
For a Rooted & Free preschooler, the day begins in a pavilion where they free play, greet other preschoolers, and sing their morning song. Then, they attend a team meeting where the teachers introduce the daily theme and activities. They walk to the bathhouse before eating the snacks they bring with them.
They spend the rest of their day doing instructional activities that include lots of time for free play in nature. Whether climbing on logs, playing with seesaws, hammocks, net tunnels, a mud kitchen, or streams, they practice taking risks in controlled ways. (Click here to learn more about risky play.)
“Every day is very different depending on the season, the weather,” McKelvie said. “We have, they call it, an emergent curriculum, where really there’s days that Sally and I will have a plan for what we think the day is going to look like, and then, an unexpected snow comes, or it’s super windy, and so we decide to build kites with the kids.”
McKelvie said that Sally Schach, who is the lead teacher of both classes at Rooted & Free, “is incredible. … She started a Toddlers in Tow program at Governor Dick many years ago when her kids were little. So, she’s just the perfect fit for Rooted & Free.”
Schach is a Lebanon County native with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in environmental studies.
McKelvie mentioned two other Rooted & Free teachers: Samantha Sollenberger, who has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and Elizabeth Holzman, who has a degree in elementary education. The preschool has seven workers, all part-time, as well as some volunteers.
“We’re always looking for volunteers if anybody is loving and wanting to come volunteer with us,” McKelvie said.
The preschool is open to children from Lebanon, Lancaster, and Dauphin counties between the ages of 3 and 1/2 and 5.
“We’re a private school. So, at this point, we’re not able to get any funding or help,” McKelvie said. “Our goal in the future is to be able to have a fund out there that can allow children of families that maybe wouldn’t be able to afford it to be able to come.”
On Sunday, May 7, from 3 to 6 p.m., Rooted & Free will hold a Family Fun Day, a free event that is open to the public. ZooAmerica will have animal presentations and stations. Afterward, there will be a campfire where people of all ages can roast marshmallows.
“Everybody should get outside some more,” McKelvie said. “… “It has not been a normal winter, so [there’s] no excuse not to get outside even in the winter this year.”
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