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Reconnecting with nature

Kristen Peterson, founder and director of Butterfly Hill, holds Izzy the Iguana, one of the many animals the preschool will have in their classroom.

Kristen Peterson of Alexandria can still remember building backyard forts and playing pick-up games of baseball with her neighbors 25 years ago. She remembers the long days outside and coming home so dirty that she left a ring of dirt in the bathtub.

But even with her own kids, she isn't seeing this anymore.

According to a 2004 study by F. Thomas Juster at the University of Michigan, children are spending half as much time outside today as they did 20 years ago.

Instead, the majority of children's time is spent in front of electronic screens, almost six hours a day according to Victoria Rideout in 2005.

"Our kids are not making big enough rings in the bathtub anymore. So much time is spent in front of a screen and being taken to organized sports that children aren't having the time to play freely outside," Peterson said. "Children need to be reconnected with nature and learn from the nature that is around them."

Peterson took these ideas and decided to create a preschool that will open in September of 2014 called Butterfly Hill Nature Preschool, Inc.

Peterson, who is the founder and director of the non-profit preschool, received a bachelor's degree in elementary education with an emphasis in early childhood education from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2005. She has been teaching preschool through 1st grade in the Alexandria area since 2007.

The preschool, hosted by Alexandria United Methodist Church, will be the sixth certified nature preschool in Minnesota. The certification is from Nature Explore, a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Education Research Foundation.

"Children need to be connected with nature again. So that is what we are creating; a time and space for children to just be surrounded by nature," Peterson said.


The curriculum at Butterfly Hill will be focused on reconnecting and teaching children with the nature that is all around them.

"Best practice for young children isn't tracing letters on a worksheet every day. It comes from hands-on experiences like carving their names in mud with a stick," Peterson said.

The curriculum is aligned with the National Association for the Education of Young Children standards and the Minnesota Department of Education's early childhood indicators of progress.

Daily activities will include art, math and literacy skills, sensory play, music and movement and a minimum of two hours spent outdoors each day.

"These daily activities will make the program well rounded and also teach children essential kindergarten readiness skills," she said.

Though they do have a set curriculum planned, Peterson explained it is also largely directed by what the children want to learn on any given day.

"If they are outside and someone catches a tadpole, they may want to learn about it. There is going to be a lot of flexibility in the daily activities, so we are really able to dive into what the children want to learn about right then," she said.

Being that they will spend so much time outdoors, Peterson anticipates that a large portion of what they learn about will be present within the environment, like plant life, gardening and critters native to Minnesota.

"There is so much to learn when you are immersed and surrounded by nature and what nature has to offer that the learning experience is so much richer than anything you could find on any electronic device. It really is hands-on learning at its finest," she said.


The preschool will consist of two classrooms, both an indoor and outdoor.

Peterson describes the indoor classroom as being an extension of the outdoor environment. Children will be supplied with toys made out of natural wood and textiles and will be provided natural items with which to manipulate, explore, design and create.

"We aren't going to fill our environment with plastic and commercialized toys because we really want to encourage their own imaginations to take over and not have a predisposed vision of what their play should look like. We want to encourage open-ended, imaginative play," she said.

Both classrooms will also be alive with a wide variety of pets, including a leopard gecko, tree frog and Russian tortoise.

The outdoor classroom will include areas for messy materials, art, gathering, climbing, gardening and water. There will also be a chicken coop the children will tend.

"On a typical day outside you may see kids picking weeds in the garden, digging for worms, collecting eggs from the chicken coops or climbing over tree stumps," she said.

In the winter, Peterson hopes they will be able to snowshoe, sled and hopefully have an ice skating rink.


Enrollment will begin in February of 2014. Classes consist of 15 students of mixed ages.

Registration is open to children that will be 3 years old by September 1, 2014 through 5 years old.

Prior to registration, interested families must attend an informational meeting that will describe the program and give an overview of nature and play-based learning in early childhood classrooms. This meeting is required before children can be registered for preschool. Meetings will be held twice a week in January 2014.

Butterfly Hill's next fundraising event is a silent auction and spaghetti supper at the Alexandria Elks Lodge in Alexandria on October 10. Donations are welcome.