Everyday Explorers: Early Learning Center uses nature as its classroom

Earlier this week, the young students at Everyday Explorers: Early Learning Center set out for an adventure to the Shelter Cove campsite — but they didn’t quite get there.

“We couldn’t make it because we had a slow morning,” said Sarah Phillips, teacher and owner of the nature preschool. The morning was only slow because the children decided to start picking up trash and decided they would rather do that instead.

“We go at the kids’ pace,” she explained.

Instead, the class of 11 students from 18 months to age 6 headed back early to help set up for lunch and ate it outside on the school’s deck.

The school, started by Phillips in 2014, is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

“We believe that children aren’t these empty vessels,” she said, “They are really capable and when we go outside it’s trusting the children that they are capable of making choices and assessing risks.”

The Reggio Emilia approach began in the 1940s in Reggio Emilia, Italy when parents got together with educator Loris Malaguzzi and founded the town’s first preschool, the Everyday Explorers website says.

“They had a vision for a new kind of school where children would be treated with respect and the children, parents, and teachers were equal shareholders and active participants in the learning initiative,” the website says.

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Outside classroom

Another important part of the school’s philosophy is being outside in nature.

“My goal is to connect these kids at a young age with their environment,” she said.

Not only does that create good stewards who learn to take care of the outside world, but also nature makes a wonderful classroom.

It captivates kids, Phillips said. Outside they can play with bugs, examine flower buds and catch snowflakes.

“You can try to mimic that inside the classroom but it’s a thousand times richer when they can engage in that outside,” she said. “Nature touches all five of your senses at once.”

Her students love to decide where they will go each day, she said. Sometimes it’s Nirvana Park or Skater’s Cabin or Odiak Lagoon.

“Sometimes we just like to find little wooded spots around town,” she said.

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Family business

Phillips has a degree in Early Childhood Development from University of Alaska Anchorage and also studied the Reggio Emilia philosophy of early childhood education last year in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Originally from Cordova, she moved back home after school and started her own family with her husband, Stephen Phillips, who works for Alaska Communications and also runs his own business, Cordova Computers. They have three kids — Tracer, 6, Elliott, 4, and Atticus, 1.

“The cost of living was so high I was trying to work another job,” she said. But she wasn’t with her children and she wasn’t using her education.

“I just thought, ‘Something isn’t right about this.’”

That’s when the idea of starting a nature preschool struck her. She said she had always imagined teaching at a school that represented all the things she grew up with — an appreciation for the environment and subsistence lifestyle.

“I wanted a place that reminded me of all my fields trips growing up here,” she said. “It was amazing to put the idea out there as just a conversation and after talking to other community members it just took off from there.”

Everyday Explorers opened Oct. 1, 2014 as one of the first state-licensed Reggio Emilia-inspired nature preschools in Alaska.

After nap time, her students were getting ready to snip lettuce from the school’s garden, made possible by a $200 City of Cordova beautification grant. The money is normally reserved for flowers but Phillips used it for perennials, edible plants, mint and herbs for her students, she said.

“And what’s more beautiful than kids growing their own food?” Phillips said.

Exactly. And the garden is yet another natural classroom for her adventurers.

Everyday Explorers: Early Learning Center is open year-round and can enroll up to 30 children.

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Brielle Schaeffer is a freelance writer for the Cordova Times. A native of Eagle River, Brielle got her start reporting in and on Prince William Sound at the Valdez Star. She has also worked for Kenai's Peninsula Clarion, the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News&Guide, the Center for Public Integrity and KCAW in Sitka. Brielle, a graduate of Washington State University's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, currently lives and writes in Sitka. She can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@gmail.com.