Long-awaited Summit County child care center prepares to open, bringing nature-based learning to dozens of children
Though it won’t open at full capacity, staff hope to eventually serve up to 100 families
Dubbed the Wildflower Nature School, the roughly 8,800-square-foot center is located near the Smith Ranch neighborhood in the town of Silverthorne — an area that, until now, had been without a major center. At peak staffing, it could serve up to 70 children per day for five days each week.
And because not all families will have their children enrolled every day, it will allow children to rotate in and out, meaning the school could end up serving up to 100 families in total, staff said. Currently, the countywide waitlist for child care hovers around 600 children.
“It’s one more dent that we can make in this waitlist,” said Executive Director Tiernan Gannon.
The center likely won’t be at full capacity when it opens next week, however, as it is still looking to fill remaining teaching positions. And with more than 270 children already on a waitlist, not every family that applies will be guaranteed a spot.
Still, the center’s construction represents the largest expansion of child care in the county in years. A high-priority project for county commissioners, the plans came into focus following the passage of a property tax increase in 2018 that created a dedicated county fund for a slew of services — including child care.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent inflation delayed the initial timeline and ballooned construction costs, but a flurry of funding from other stakeholders, including Silverthorne’s town government, as well as congressional earmarks helped push the project over the finish line.
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Providing child care to families is an economic imperative, local leaders said, as it allows residents to leave their homes and contribute to the local workforce. But it also ensures children have access to crucial developmental skills that will set them up for success later in life.
Per its name, the Wildflower Nature School will use nature-based learning to foster children’s social and emotional well-being. In and outside the classroom, children will be exposed to various elements of the natural world, whether it be playgrounds featuring mulch and tree stumps, or a wooden contraption that uses the flow of water to mimic streams and dams.
Children will encounter less plastic and more organic materials, such as circular clay stones that feature imprints of animals and their corresponding footprints. Large tables with clear domes that can be wheeled around the classroom will house treasures from the outdoors, such as sticks, leaves and dirt. Children can use microscopes to investigate the patterns and colors of what they find, providing intimate interactions with their local environment.
“As they learn to explore that, especially in a natural setting, you get to share that wonder with them,” said Miles Agreste, lead teacher for toddlers ages 2 to 3. “It’s always been my dream to work in a nature-based school because I have such a strong belief in the integration of people and nature and helping kids understand that they are a part of nature rather than distinct from it.”
Mackenzi Worl, lead teacher for children ages 4 to 5, said the school’s curriculum will be a top-up approach that “follows the children’s lead.”
It’s a philosophy known as “imaginative play” which creates space for children to use their creativity and curiosity to enhance outdoor exploration. Worl said she’s hoping this can extend beyond the school’s boundaries, adding that her class will have access to hiking trails in the Smith Ranch neighborhood.
Monthly rates at the Wildflower Nature School differ depending on a child’s age and how many days they are enrolled. For infants and toddlers, rates range from $429 to $2,145. For preschoolers, usually aged 3 to 5, rates are range from $398.67 to $1,1993.33.
More information on rates and enrollment can be found on the school’s website, http://www.WildflowerSilverthorne.org/. Information on countywide tuition assistance programs for children aged 0-5 can be found at http://www.EarlyChildhoodOptions.org/. Information on the state’s new universal pre-school program can be found at cdec.Colorado.gov/Universal-Preschool-Colorado.
“I really have high hopes for being outside a majority of the time,” Worl said. “There’s so much to see and learn just from our environment around us.”
Worl gave the example of being on a hike and encountering a bird’s nest. Children may ask, “Where do the birds come from? Where do the eggs come from? How does the bird get inside the egg?”
These conversations can become a fixture of children’s world-building and can help build critical thinking skills and a sense of place, Worl said. It also provides more opportunities for children to be outside, which can have direct physiological benefits, such as nervous system regulation and improving sleep patterns.
Gannon, the school’s director, said it’s all part of a research-driven approach to early childhood development.
“We are learning while we’re in nature. We are developing all these different cognitive and social-emotional and fine motor and gross motor skills,” Gannon said.
And she’s hoping the success of Wildflower can continue to build momentum for that type of learning approach.
“It’s exciting. We’re kind of on the precipice of it all,” she said.
Community leaders will host an open house and ribbon cutting, as well as facility tours of the new center, on Tuesday, Aug. 29, from 4-6 p.m. The center is located at 160 Ruby Ranch Road, Silverthorne.
More information on rates and enrollment can be found on the school’s website, http://www.WildflowerSilverthorne.org/. Information on tuition assistance programs for children aged 0-5 can be found at http://www.EarlyChildhoodOptions.org/.
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