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The City Journals

SLC’s first nature preschool expands downtown

Jun 05, 2019 04:10PM ● By Spencer Belnap

Wonderbloom founder and educator, Sarah Stone, leads a musical session in SLC’s first ever preschool based in nature. (Courtesy Sarah Stone/Wonderbloom)

By Spencer W. Belnap | [email protected]

Nature has always played a big part in Sarah Stone’s life, in her years growing up in her home state of Idaho and now here in Utah. She wanted her two young children to experience nature, too, and looked for a preschool that focused on life outdoors, but found none in Salt Lake City. She realized with her early childhood education background, doctoral work, and passion, she could start the very school she was seeking. Offering something like a forest school to the community seemed like a natural career step. 

Forest schools or nature schools are learning environments for young children and have been around in Europe for over 20 years, and exist in some form all around the world, including the United States. Instead of a traditional indoor classroom, children learn and play in a nature-based setting. Stone believes this is a healthy environment to promote development and learning. 

“Study after study after study shows all these positive benefits for children,” Stone said. “Anything from they pay better attention when they learn outside, to they have better eyesight because all the artificial lights from indoors actually create all these problems with their eyes. Cooperation is better, as well as creativity and even academic scores later on in life.”

Wee Humans was started in Stone’s backyard in Sugar House in 2017. Like most new endeavors or businesses, the founder was uncertain if it would be successful. They filled up with the maximum allotment of eight kids the first year though. Soon after, the waitlist grew to seven times the enrollment capacity the second year. Stone knew she had begun a preschool that would only blossom over time. 

So after just one year in a backyard in Sugar House, Wee Humans was already looking to expand. Stone wanted to find a larger facility, but one that already existed and wasn’t being used during the day. Tying in with the nature school philosophy of taking care of the earth and not being wasteful, a space that was currently sitting vacant was ideal. A downtown place of worship, Cathedral Church of St. Mark, was discovered. The spot proved to be the perfect fit for a growing nature preschool. Wee Humans morphed into a nonprofit and became Wonderbloom. The new, larger space at 231 E. 100 South will open June 10 for summer sessions. 

Jayne Tirado is a Salt Lake parent who has been taking her two young girls to the city’s first nature preschool for over a year now. She and her children have enjoyed their time in the backyard in Sugar House and are excited to play and learn in the new location. 

“When we first moved to Utah, we were looking for a different way of learning,” Tirado said. “There are so many good schools, but we wanted something outside and in nature. Here, they play with bugs and eggs and chickens; everything has a purpose and they have so much fun. It’s a calm and organized way of learning.” 

Tirado has signed up Isabela, 4, and Violeta, 2, for some summer sessions. These are week-long learning sessions, morning and afternoon, centered around a different nature topic or theme each week. These include an “ooey gooey” session, where children play in the mud and touch worms and various things “gooey” in nature. Another week’s option is “nocturnal ninjas,” focused on different plants and animals that come alive and thrive at night. 

In addition to the learning agenda, Wonderbloom kids practice yoga most days and eat a healthy organic snack. Local food sources and vendors are usually used. In the fall, carrots and other root vegetables that the children love to harvest are eaten. Chickens will be coming to the new space as well, maintaining a hands-on approach to learning about farming and tending backyard animals. The classroom is essentially the courtyard of the church, with the ability to move indoors on bad air or inclement weather days. The surrounding church walls offer shade and sound barriers. Although nestled in the heart of a busy city, the preschool is quiet and safe.  

While it moves from its humble roots in Sugar House to its new downtown location, Stone only sees further growth for Wonderbloom and the nature school movement in the United States. As classes fill up to 24 students, and waitlists continue to grow, it’s only a matter of time before Stone takes the nature playschool to a different and larger space in Salt Lake. 

“I want to offer this kind of education to all children,” Stone said. “As cheesy as that sounds, that’s my hope. We hope to offer scholarships in the future, too.”