When Nicole Gilbert and Marc Howell sought a nature-based preschool for their two youngest children that focused on creative learning through nature, plant-based foods and Spanish immersion, they couldn’t find one; so they took the leap and created their own. Pebble Pond Preschool, which opened in October in Fort Worth, helps children excel and grow while connecting them to nature, healthy eating and Spanish language studies.
Gilbert fondly remembers how her father made sure she got outside every day to hike and play, and he showed her animals and took her out foraging. Two environmentally themed cartoons also influenced Gilbert during her childhood—Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and The Lorax.
Gilbert went on to study at Clemson University, earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental and natural resources in 2007, and a master’s degree in forest resources in 2008. She worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Dinosaur Valley State Park until she and Howell opened Pebble Pond Preschool.
Howell, a vegan of 18 years, has a business making vegan popcorn for events. He had worked in appliance repair for nearly two decades, fixing the machines before they ended up in landfills and giving them new life. The couple combines their knowledge and environmental passions to make Pebble Pond Preschool a place where children ages 3 through 6 can play outside and get dirty while learning about nature.
Pebble Pond Preschool’s curriculum combines some aspects of the Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and Montessori education models. “In Waldorf, they encourage natural elements in the classroom, and they incorporate gardening and cooking,” Gilbert says. Waldorf classrooms have homelike atmospheres, and Pebble Pond Preschool emulates that in the1920s house where the school is located. There are mixed-age classrooms, a Montessori element, and teachers set out different activities and education materials made from natural elements.
Gilbert and Howell converted the property’s yard to an outdoor classroom with wildflowers, native plants and a bird feeder. Logs, boards, tires and blocks make up a loose parts area where kids can build things and dig with shovels. There’s a mud kitchen, and Gilbert tries to get the kids outside rain or shine. “That teaches them resilience and to just enjoy life, no matter the weather. If there’s a safety issue like lightening or it’s too cold, we stay in, but otherwise, the kids can see changes with the trees, or see worms on the sidewalk when it rains. They find something new every day.” The kids often eat outdoors and occasionally nap outside.
Most of the kids at Pebble Pond Preschool are not from Spanish-speaking homes, so Gilbert and the staff teach Spanish language by gradually working in Spanish words and phrases and make sure the children are understanding them through pointing to things and using hand and body cues.
Kids learn about natural foods through a weekly food theme, such as a carrot, through photos, touch, smell, taste and how to work it into different meals. There’s a small garden, and the kids participate in harvesting the produce.
Natural living is also included in the curriculum, so the kids learn about non-toxic cleaning, composting and recycling, which Gilbert says helps them develop positive, lifelong habits. “I know how important it is to be connected to nature from a young age,” Gilbert says. “For a couple of years, kids will have this experience and hopefully, this little seed we have planted will be with them for the rest of their lives.”
Pebble Pond Preschool is located at 3121 Forest Ave., in Fort Worth. For more information, call 817-395-1885 or visit PebblePondPreschool.com.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.
For more stories like this read Natural Awakenings Dallas-Ft Worth magazine at NADallas.com