Ithaca forest preschool

About Us

Our caring and skilled mentors help guide our students towards creating a life-long love of learning and the Earth through encouraging curiosity, asking questions and exploration.

Founding Director

Jed Jordan

Aspiring tracker, devoted farmer and fearless wrangler of details.

Jed has been an Environmental Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County for over 16 years and co-founded the Primitive Pursuits program along with Tim Drake and Dave Hall. Jed is also an adjunct lecturer at Ithaca College, in the Environmental Studies & Sciences Dept. where he has helped develop and teach an Environmental Sentinels course for the last nine years.

Jed lives in Danby NY, with his wife and two youngest children. He and his wife own and operate a small u-pick berry farm, Rogue Creek Farm, where he also raises honeybees and nut trees, among other homesteading activities.

Lead Instructor

Sarah Chaffee

Sarah’s love for the outdoors began at a young age during trips to her family’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania. She spent long summer days with her cousins getting lost in cornfields, catching crawfish and salamanders in a creek, and singing to cows.

Growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., Sarah had to find unique ways to connect to the small amounts of nature around her. In high school, she discovered photography and her love of visual storytelling and used this creative outlet to connect to her natural surroundings.

Sarah found her way to Primitive Pursuits originally as a photojournalist internship. After spending the summer outside and taking pictures (her dream come true), she decided to continue working with Primitive Pursuits and hasn’t looked back since! Sarah learned that while she loves taking photos, she also has a passion for helping children form meaningful connections to nature, just like the ones she made as a child.

Today you can find Sarah in Trillium Camp where she is our Ithaca Forest Preschool lead instructor (although you may still catch her out in the woods occasionally taking pictures). Sarah is so grateful to work within an organization that is as loving and supportive as Primitive Pursuits and Ithaca Forest Preschool and hopes that the children she serves and the instructors she leads find their home and happiness here too.

 

 

Lead instructor

Elisabeth Harrod

We are thrilled to welcome Elisabeth Harrod to the Ithaca Forest Preschool team.

Elisabeth has taught in elementary public-school classrooms, an afterschool computer-based learning center, a hands-on, inquiry-based science center, summer camps, and even created her own nature-based preschool where the children’s curiosity and love of the natural world delighted her every day.

When she wasn’t teaching other people’s children, she was homeschooling her two sons. She spent the past 20 years learning alongside them, following their interests and passions and says “I know more about dinosaurs and presidents, geology and economics, birds, and Irish fiddle tunes than I would ever have learned without following their lead. For all these years, I’ve been a student of effective ways to work with diverse children of all ages in every possible setting.”

Elisabeth loves storytelling, the natural world, being creative, cooking, making fairy houses, singing, and being “in the moment” with children. Nothing delights her more than laughing, playing, crafting & creating, and spending time outdoors with young children.

She is delighted to have the privilege to spend her days adventuring, learning, and growing together with the Forest Preschool children.  

Assistant Instructor

Mira Vanek Johnson

Mira has called Ithaca home for as long as she can remember. She spent much of her childhood running around outside, playing pretend, and making things. A frequent participant in Primitive Pursuits programs over the years, 2019 was her first summer helping to make the magic happen for summer campers. 

This will be her second season on the Forest Preschool staff. She is thrilled to be a part of the Primitive Pursuits and Ithaca Forest Preschool community, engage more deeply with nature, and develop and encourage greater consciousness about this beautiful land…and through all of that, to laugh, play, and have fun!

Assistant Instructor

Hannah Whelan

Hannah attended Canisius College to study biology in hopes of going to veterinary school but discovered after her freshman year that she has a fiery passion for the environment. Since then, she has been studying Animal Behavior, Ecology, Conservation, and Environmental Studies. Hannah spends her time working to learn everything she can about the natural world and believes that if we inspire the youth to connect with the environment, we can foster tremendous love and hope for each other, our communities, and our planet.

Assistant Instructor

Madeline Turner

Madeline is a longtime Ithaca resident and outdoor enthusiast who has been with Primitive Pursuits since the summer of 2019.

She has worked with kids for several years, and believes outdoor spaces create the most meaningful learning experiences. She loves helping kids feel comfortable in the woods, and seeing nature through their eyes. Her hope is that kids who develop a love of nature will grow into adults with a lifelong respect for and connection with the earth.

Madeline is currently an undergraduate student at Cornell, studying Industrial and Labor Relations. She is excited to see what adventures lie ahead!

Assistant Instructor

Eli Lines

As a child, Eli grew up in the African country of Madagascar, so he grew up exploring. He is as much of an outdoorsy explorer now as he was then, and this is why Primitive Pursuits was immediately so appealing to him. Eli has been involved in Primitive Pursuits since he was a camper and loves to learn and challenge himself. Eli excited take all he has learned over the years with Primitive Pursuits and apply it to Ithaca Forest Preschool.

Counselor In Training

Chloe King

Chloe has been interested in the outdoors since she was very young. She still has vivid memories of sledding down the hill in her neighborhood and running through the woods at her old house in Kentucky. She loves hiking and reading on her hammock outside her house.

Chloe is in eighth grade and goes to Boyton middle school. She has been playing the piano ever since she was little and has always loved music. She also sings and acts in her school plays as well as at Running to Places Theater Company. Chloe has two younger sisters and has been helping out with them since they were born. She loves playing with young kids and came to Forest Preschool after a friend told her how great it was. She is very excited to get to know and learn from all of the children at Forest Preschool and is grateful for the opportunity that has been given to her.

Counselor In Training

Astrid Braddock

Astrid is a Primitive Pursuits camper-turned-CIT, who began her journey at Primitive Pursuits at the age of the preschoolers themselves! Since then, she has learned and grown up with Primitive Pursuits, and this past summer, she was able to become a CIT for the first time. She loves doing many outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, rock climbing, and horseback riding, as well as singing and learning new songs. Already, she has made so many wonderful new memories and friends, and learned so much from all of the kids. She is so happy to be passing on her knowledge and experiences to this group of people, and she can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings!

Co-Founder 

Melissa Blake

In 2013, along with Tim Drake and Jed Jordan, Melissa co-founded Ithaca Forest Preschool.  

Melissa completed a graduate program in Environmental Education at the Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a two-year mentorship with master tracker Jon Young. In 2006 she founded a program called Growing Wild Nature Mentoring in the Catskills. 

Although Melissa has moved on to a new role at the Ithaca Waldorf School, is a frequent collaborator and consultant with Ithaca Forest Preschool.

What Parents are Saying...

“Ithaca Forest Preschool prepared our sons to really appreciate nature, to pay attention to details we may not notice nor know anything about, and to love winter; to this day, they sprint outside to play in the cold!”

R.A., Ithaca Forest Preschool parent

What Parents are Saying...

“Ithaca Forest Preschool is a place where your children will learn lots of things you may not know yourself, which they love to come home and share with you.” 

L.C., Ithaca Forest Preschool parent

What Parents are Saying...

“My daughter is now in 4th grade, and my sons are in 2nd Grade and Kindergarten. I can honestly say that I feel they entered Kindergarten completely prepared and that they had something extra to bring to the classroom, an experience beyond what one would expect of a preschooler because they also brought with them unique life skills and stories from their time in the forest.”

G. K., Ithaca Forest Preschool parent

If you believe that children belong outside, and that the tools of imagination are what build a happy childhood and a strong foundation, then welcome  to our wooded world.

Ithaca forest Preschool

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Forest Preschool?

A Forest Preschool is just that, a school in the forest! Forest Preschools are the U.S. version of Forest Kindergartens (Waldkindergarten), which have been popular in Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia for decades. There are a growing number in the U.S. and we are on the cutting-edge of nature-based early childhood education! Learn more about forest preschools at naturalstart.org

Will my child be outside the whole time?

We are outside the vast majority of the time; however we do have access to several places to go “in”, including a tipi, a pavilion, and a heated building with bathrooms. Parents learn to dress their children for the weather, and children learn how to stay–or get–warm and dry. Our motto is, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” And remember:

Whether the weather is cold
Or whether the weather is hot
Whether the weather is fair
Or whether the weather is not
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not.

 

Why should I consider an outdoor school?

Our family spends lots of time outside. Why should I pay for this kind of experience?

It’s great that so many children in our area get time outside with their families. Attending a forest preschool has different benefits. For one thing, learning in nature alongside peers and non-parent adults teaches children that this is a normal way to spend time, not limited to their family. Secondly, the social aspect of what we do is so important. The outdoors is an amazing classroom for learning social and emotional skills, where group imaginative play abounds and teamwork is necessary if the group is to thrive. At Ithaca Forest Preschool in particular, we place a lot of emphasis on community and the group. Also, the staff to student ratio is high in order for us to manage risks appropriately; this means there are lots of opportunities for us to coach children in these important social-emotional skills. for more information please refer to the Ithaca Forest Preschool Parent Handbook.

What about winter?

Winter is a wonderful season to explore. We do a lot of snow play and animal tracking, go for walks, build fires, and make warming wild teas. We also do spend some time in our heated building doing indoor tracking activities, crafts, games, songs, and stories. The amount of time we spend indoors depends on the year, but even in the coldest Winters we manage to be outside for part of the morning. The decision of whether to be inside or outside depends on risk management and how best to accomplish our goals of helping children connect to nature, self, and others. The children’s enjoyment of Winter is directly related to how well-dressed and fed they are and how relaxed parents are about the idea of their children spending time out in the cold. Things they learn in Winter include self-care skills, how to dress for Winter play, animal tracking, and beginning to recognize trees in Winter.

What Does My Child Need to Bring?

Children should come dressed appropriately for the weather. We give very detailed information about dressing for the seasons in the Ithaca Forest Preschool Parent Handbook and we also offer a brochure that we created called Dressing Young Children for Outdoor Fun. Additionally, children should come with plenty of water, a healthy lunch and snacks to keep them comfortable for an active day outside.

 

When Can I Drop Off and Pick Up My Child?

Supervision begins at 9 am and ends promptly at 12:00 pm. In case you have an emergency or will be late to pick up please contact our office at 607-272-2292.

 

Is public transportation or carpooling available?

4-H Acres is an on-demand TCAT stop, and there is a bus that can arrive right around 9 am. We do not arrange carpooling, but you are welcome to discuss this at drop off or pickup with other participants/parents who may be interested.

Is toilet-training required?

Yes. Children must be out of diapers/pull-ups and needing only minimal assistance with toileting. Children are encouraged to pee outside and to poop in a child potty that is at our base camp. There is also an indoor bathroom a short walk from our base camp. Sometimes we are too far from a potty and need to use the nature bathroom (pee on the ground, poop in a hole) with assistance.

Is food provided?

No. Please supply yourself/your child with plenty of healthy snacks, lunch, and water each day. These are active children, and they get HUNGRY! Protein, fat, and fiber are especially important for providing long-burning energy. Suggestions for what to pack for lunch and snack are available in the Ithaca Forest Preschool Parent Handbook.

Who are the teachers and how are they trained?

The Ithaca Forest Preschool teachers (we call them mentors) are Primitive Pursuits instructors or in some cases highly trained volunteers. You can read staff bios on our staff page. Although staff may rotate days, we all work together as a team.

We require a combination of experience and education in some or all of the following: outdoor education, early childhood education or development, primitive skills, naturalist skills, and “coyote mentoring” as described in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature. All of our instructors and volunteers must go through background checks but we do not require teaching certification. 

Will this prepare my child for kindergarten?

We believe so. According to Ithaca City School District kindergarten teachers, the most important skills for entering kindergarten are social-emotional skills. Self-care skills, listening to others in a group setting, managing conflict while playing with others, making transitions smoothly, and self-regulation skills are all prominent in the forest preschool setting. The outdoor environment and our child-led curriculum provide myriad opportunities for cooperation, collaboration, conflict management, and the development of emotional resilience.

Cognitive scientists say imaginative play with few or no props builds a skill set called “executive function”, which is a better predictor of school success than IQ (from an NPR report titled “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”, February 20, 2008). It is well-known that physical activity is essential for healthy brain and nervous system development (see, for example, Teaching With the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen). Recognizing patterns in nature may translate to recognizing letters and words, and being able to develop a mental picture while listening to stories told orally is an important pre-reading skill. The importance of nature play for academic success is now so clear that author Richard Louv wrote a column in September 2014 titled, “Want Your Kids to Get Into Harvard? Tell ‘Em to Go Outside!”

At Ithaca Forest Preschool, your child will get practice with these specific kindergarten-level skills: listening to and following multi-step directions; taking turns; identifying colors; counting; simple math; working with backpacks, coats, zippers, and boots; tying an overhand (shoelace) knot, feeding him or herself lunch in a distracting environment, and managing her or his stuff.

What Scholarships are Available?

We are committed to making our programs available to as many people as possible. To this end, we generate scholarships via our sliding-scale fees. Any contributions made over the minimum of the sliding scale for all our programs are tax-deductible donations to our scholarship fund. Thus, scholarships are limited to the sum of these funds and are awarded based on equitable distribution.

Recipients will be notified by email and given a timeframe within which to accept or decline the amount awarded and complete payment of the balance.

 

About Scholarships

  • Trimester: $100 in scholarship for the first day/week, then $50 for each additional day/week (e.g., If you are registered for Mondays & Wednesdays, the maximum amount in scholarship would be $150)
  • Larger scholarships are considered under extenuating circumstances, and on a case by case basis.
  • Scholarship applications must be submitted a minimum of 30 days before the program start date to ensure consideration. You may apply closer to the start date, but we cannot guarantee a response before the program begins.

How to Apply:

  • Create an Online Account Portal using a computer and Firefox or Chrome (not Safari or Explorer, not on a tablet or smartphone)
  • Sign up for your selected program(s) and pay a deposit (EXCEPT summer camps after May 1, email primitivepursuitscamp@gmail.com to arrange deposit payment thru Registrar).
  • If you are applying for a scholarship for more than the maximum amount, please email our office at primitivepursuits@cornell.edu with information about your circumstances.

What is your cancellation and refund policy?

  • In order for any program change or refund request to be considered, it must be made in writing through the registrar, even if you have discussed this with another staff person, such as a field educator.
  • The effective date of all refund requests is the DATE OF THE EMAIL notifying the Registrar of your request.
  • Changes and refunds are NOT guaranteed and only the Registrar can process these changes.
  • All deposits (even “non-refundable deposits”) will be returned if you are unable to participate in a program for lack of a scholarship request being approved.

Please email primitivepursuitscamp@gmail.com with your full name, phone number, the participant’s name, the full program name(s), and the program start date(s). 

More on our policies page.

Ithaca forest Preschool

The Latest News from Our Blog

FOREST PRESCHOOL TOUR July 16th 10AM-Noon

FOREST PRESCHOOL TOUR
July 16th 10AM-Noon

Parents and Children are Invited to Join Ithaca Preschool co-founder, Melissa Blake for a Tour of Our Very Special All-Outdoor Preschool Program. This is a great opportunity to ask questions and observe our summer camp program, which is very similar to our school year...

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A Glimpse Into Forest Preschool

A Glimpse Into Forest Preschool

This is a reprint of a post from the Primitive Pursuits blog by Kirsten Wise from 2015 In September I had a chance to visit the Ithaca Forest Preschool just as the school year began. Spiders. Fires. And monsters making ice cream. Stranger things have happened at the...

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Winter Dressing Dos and Don’ts

Winter Dressing Dos and Don’ts

The arrival of winter weather has some people wondering...   "What can I do to make sure my child can be comfortable playing outside in the wind, cold, snow, and rain?" Primitive Pursuits has been taking youth out in winter for over a decade, and at Ithaca Forest...

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Book Review: Balanced and Barefoot

Book Review: Balanced and Barefoot

How have children's lives changed in the last 30 years? According to author and Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, children's lives today are much more structured and busier than when she--or I--was a kid. Kids now often have an extracurricular activity or sport...

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Office Location:
Cornell Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave., Ithaca, NY 14850
607-272-2292 | email Us

Preschool Location: 
4-H Acres, 418 Lower Creek Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850


Ithaca Forest Preschool is a program of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and is run by Primitive Pursuits, a 4-H Program.