A new preschool in Homer approaches early childhood education by giving kids the freedom to learn through play. Founded by certified kindergarten-third grade teacher and Lifeways early childhood teacher Hanna Young, Tiny Trees: Homer’s Forest School’s two play-based programs give kids a chance to build academic and life skills outside of the classroom.
Young, who has a masters in early childhood special education, is a familiar face in Homer’s early childhood education scene. She previously ran a preschool called Hanna’s Hideway, and has worked at Kachemak Kids, Head Start and Sprout. Young offers a half-day program that runs with the school-year calendar with a break for the summer.
“I was born interested in children. I knew I wanted kids when I was three,” Young said. “I always loved it. I was always drawn to children and families.”
Keri Keller, an experienced childcare provider who has taught in preschools that emphasize play-based learning, teaches a full-day Tiny Trees’ program that runs year-round.
“I assistant taught at a Montessori preschool in Fairbanks years ago and fell in love with the specific approaches and philosophies,” Keller said. “I found that I loved providing for kids in these child-led learning environments. I’ve come to outdoor child education because I’ve seen the impact on children.”
Tiny Trees: Homer’s Forest School features a family-style group of children from infant to 5 years who are supported by the teacher through age-appropriate free and guided play. Tiny Trees’ preschool program, inspired by the idea that play is the work of children, provides structure to children with familiar daily schedules, referred to as rhythms on the Tiny Trees’ website.
“The family style is key for me because that’s where they have the opportunity to learn self care and patience — natural things that would happen in a family,” Young said. “It sets them up to be successful in relationships with other people.”
Tiny Trees’s unique approach is rooted in play-based learning, which includes free and guided play.
Free play takes place as a child explores their environment using unlimited creativity, including physical activity, dramatic play and games with rules. Though adults often see play as the opposite of education, children learn and develop best through play, wrote early childhood education expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige in a 2016 Washington Post editorial, “Our misguided effort to close the achievement gap is creating a new inequality: The play gap.”
Guided, or structured, play involves an adult engaging the child on ideas and concepts related to an educational activity. The adult might infuse vocabulary words from a recently read book or discuss shapes and their relationships as the children imagine, build and create on their terms. Guided play allows children to learn how to problem solve as they face difficulties, while support from an adult prevents them from becoming frustrated and helps the children stay engaged longer.
In studies of preschool-age children, both math and language skills were more readily retained when the concepts were introduced as a part of guided play, according to an article written for the National Association for the Education of Young Children titled “The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story.” When free and guided play are combined, children benefit. Research on play-based learning establishes relationships between play and childhood development in language, executive functions, mathematics and spatial skills, scientific thinking, and social and emotional development.
However, Tiny Trees is more than just a preschool program in Homer. Hanna is working to create a model that anyone, anywhere, can use to make their own preschool based off the similar philosophy.
Tiny Trees grew out of a friendship with the mother of one of her students from Hanna’s Hideaway. Stephanie Dickerson was wildly enthusiastic about Young’s approach to childcare, and the two hatched an idea to scale Young’s model to work for other people. In addition to creating a framework for others to set up their own preschool, Young wants to be able to offer onsite training and consultations, mentoring and workshops.
“We are currently developing educational and business support packages for starting your own outdoor play-based preschool care program,” Young said. “It’s not a franchise, but a toolkit for helping people implement this model — a business in a box. In that model, the support we can offer somebody is infinite.”
Keller’s program, though it also has the Tiny Trees name, is the first built based on Young’s model.
Young and Keller create an environment in which children engage in crafts, storytelling, singing, cooking, practical work, outdoor play and artistic activities. Young sets up an environment where she is mindful of the children, while letting them explore on their own.
“I know that I have an activity that I’m going to be doing, whether it’s raking leaves or fixing part of the fence, and I try to be busy with something and leave the children to engage on their own accord. It might take a little while, but as long as I seem to be engrossed in an activity, they find something to play with,” Young said. “I stay out of their way while providing a purposefully created environment.”
They spend as much time as possible outdoors, allowing children to become comfortable in nature and adapt to different situations. Teaching resiliency is important to both Keller and Young.
“Learning to fall down is learning balance, and that you can get back up, and that’s resilience,” Keller said.
Though it looks different from a more traditional classroom setting, education does not take a backseat. Tiny Trees has all of the elements of traditional preschool, but with an organic flow that matches developmental growth, Keller said.
“The program is literacy-rich,” Keller said. “ We count things, read things and are immersed in life. In our daily rhythm, there are these free centering moments, moments of wide open space where they are free to do what they need to inside boundaries of safety and respect, and then a transition inside with cushions and books there. They come together and talk with themselves, and then we read a story together.”
“Parents ask, ‘Will there be numbers and letters?’ Not in the sense that you’ll expect them,” Young said.