Champaign moms to open preschool that will ‘immerse children in nature, play’ – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN A love of the outdoors came naturally, you might say, for sisters Caity Peterson and Ellen Saathoff.

Their dad, Brian Deal, is a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois. And their moms father, Bruce Hannon, is an emeritus geology professor and a longtime environmental activist.

They spent their childhood hiking in Allerton Park, helping their grandfather plant burr oaks and playing outside all summer.

Now they want to share their passion with a younger generation at a new nature school, a preschool and after-school program that will immerse children in nature, play and being outside, Saathoff said.

Thats how we were brought up, Saathoff said. It was just a big part of our childhood, a big part of what we want to pass on for our own kids and for other kids.

Sprouts Art and Nature School will open in January in a remodeled 1924 house on a tree-filled lot at 1403 W. Springfield Ave., C. An open house is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The two women, who both hold UI degrees in early-childhood education, opened a child-care service in Petersons house in 2014. Saathoff was pregnant with her first child, and Peterson had taken some time off from teaching kindergarten at South Side Elementary School after having her third child.

They saw the venture as a chance to raise their own children and still work in the field they loved.

Theyve been developing a nature-based curriculum ever since, and now weve got the space to match, said Saathoff, mom to Freddy, 3, and Richie, 5.

The curriculum features lessons on the nature of central Illinois, with units on bugs, trees, birds and flowers.

We believe in the importance of imagination, making connections, play and authentic nature experiences over teacher-led direct academic instruction, said Peterson, who has three children, Mae, 7, George, 9 and Violet, 10.

Their husbands Derek Peterson and Joe Saathoff worked with Brian Deal to renovate the basement for the original preschool, and they are again the loving builders behind this place, Ellen Saathoff said Monday at the new Sprouts school.

Their mom, Claire Deal, is the official substitute; she went back to college to get the remaining credit hours she needed.

We couldnt do this without them, Saathoff said.

Displayed around the new center are their students nature-inspired works of art watercolors of leaves, butterflies and rain-streaked windows; a garland with caterpillars and other insects made out of colorful scrap materials; acrylic pendants with pinecones and evergreen cuttings inside.

Most of the books tie into the nature theme, including the sisters childhood favorite, the Caldecott Award-winner Roxaboxen. The book is about children who build a magical community out of ordinary objects like pebbles, sticks and boxes and their imaginations.

Its just such a good example, Saathoff said. Everything they need is already here.

Outside, they set up a mud kitchen with an old sink for making mud pies. A shelving unit was filled with twigs and other natural objects that the children use to make up elaborate games. A path encircles the yard, leading to a butterfly garden popular with monarchs and a real garden that produced squash and watermelon this year.

Most striking is a giant birds nest, with a metal frame built by the welding class at Central High School. Its designed for kids to climb inside and build their own nest with sticks and other materials.

In the spirit of sustainability, the sisters have tried to repurpose as much as they can.

The wood tables were crafted from the houses original framework. Outside, a table and chairs were built out of tree stumps. The deck had to be replaced, so the old lumber was used for a boardwalk.

They chose the house in part because its two blocks from Westview Elementary School so they can walk to pick up their kids.

Its not new construction. Its covered with trees and its a huge lot, in town, which is so rare, Saathoff said.

Sprouts will have a morning preschool, an extended-day preschool and an after-school program for school-aged children. It will have room for 12 preschoolers ages 2 to 5, and 20 kids altogether.

One of our goals is to build a community of people who believe in raising the next generation of environmentalists. Saathoff said.

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Champaign moms to open preschool that will 'immerse children in nature, play' - Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

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