For children enrolled in the preschool program at Napa’s Connolly Ranch, nature is their classroom.
On cold or rainy days, they may gather in the barn, explore the greenhouse or have story time in the yurt near the top of a hill. At least once a week, the children break into small groups to feed and care for the ranch’s goats, donkeys and chickens.
“I always tell the parents, ‘We’ll send them home to you dirty, tired, and happy,’” said Hylah Egeland, the preschool program director.
Connolly Ranch recently began its winter session of “Earthlings Outdoor Playschool,” a part-time preschool program for 3- to 5-year-olds. “Earthlings” is one of three different preschool programs offered year-round at the ranch on Browns Valley Road adjacent to Westwood Hills Park.
Earthlings is a half-day preschool with two class sessions — one that meets Mondays and Wednesdays, and one meeting Tuesdays and Thursdays. Up to 24 children are in each class, and the typical student-to-teacher ratio is 6 to 1.
Napa resident Michele Truchard has her 4-year-old daughter enrolled in the Earthlings program. Her son, now 8, also attended during his preschool years. Truchard said she and her husband have nicknamed the program “Dirtlings,” because of how dirty the kids get from playing on the farm.
“The kids have so much fun being out in nature, playing in the mud, collecting eggs,” Truchard said. “It really lets kids be kids.”
But through the active play, the kids also are learning, said Truchard, who also is a Connolly Ranch board member.
Truchard still remembers her 3-year-old son returning from preschool and identifying herbs in the family garden.
“He’d come home and say, ‘This is parsley, and this is sage,’” she said.
Connolly Ranch, a popular field trip destination for Napa-area schools, has operated its own preschool for one and a half years. To help provide a steady stream of income, Connolly Ranch took over the preschool program from Napa Parks and Recreation, which had operated the preschool for about eight years.
The ranch offers other farm-based environmental education programs throughout the year and hosts special events such as birthday parties.
During “free play” earlier this week, the 3- to 5-year-olds in the Earthlings program played with Legos and homemade clay scattered across picnic tables. Some took the ranch’s donkey for a walk, while others pretended to drive the tractor sitting in the barn. One boy used a corn grinder to prepare a snack for the farm animals.
At the end of free play, Egeland gathered the preschoolers into two lines to get them ready for the next activity.
“The animals haven’t had breakfast yet, and they’re pretty hungry,” Egeland told the kids.
Each week, children feed and care for the ranch animals. One group headed to the big barn to feed the goats, donkeys and sheep, while the second group walked down to the small barn where hungry geese, chickens, and turkeys awaited.
“I think it’s essential to be outside, even in wintertime,” Egeland said. “It can get cold, but we bundle up.”
Outdoor education allows children to “feel the seasons,” Egeland said. Instead of staying cooped up in a climate-controlled room, children are outdoors witnessing the buds coming out on trees, watching chicks hatch and grow, planting seeds and taking part in the harvest season, she said.
At Connolly Ranch, children also take part in pressing apples to make their own cider and apple sauce, milking the goats to make cheese, and using whey to pickle cucumbers.
One of Egeland’s hopes is that the young graduates of Connolly Ranch grow up to love and value the natural world. Caring about nature and having a connection to it is what motivates people to protect the environment, she said.