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.

Co-Founder, Lead instructor, Program Coordinator

Melissa Blake

Melissa is a secret hideout specialist with 20+ years in nature connection and leadership development.

If someone had told Melissa when she was a teenager that she would get to make a living as a camp counselor, she wouldn’t have believed it. But that’s what she has gotten to do for the past 20+ years. She has taught children outdoors in California, Wyoming, Maryland, and New York and led teens and adults on wilderness expeditions all over western North America.

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, and in 2013 co-founded Ithaca Forest Preschool and Growing Wild Camp as programs of Primitive Pursuits. She loves spending time with preschoolers in their natural habitat–nature–and watching the growth of their imaginations, curiosity, and empathy for living things–including each other.

Melissa agrees with David Sobel that we should “give children a chance to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”

If you would like to speak with Melissa about our school, call the office at 607-272-2292 and we will schedule a time.

Lead Instructor, photographer and blogger

Sarah Chaffee

Sarah joined our team as a photojournalism intern in 2017 and we couldn’t bear to let her go! Since that time Sarah has worked in the field and done an incredible job capturing the magic that happens each day with her beautiful photos and weekly blog posts.

Since Sarah was a child she has loved to move- whether that be by hiking great distances or going on long road trips, she has always loved the feeling of going somewhere and doing something. This passion for movement has taken her all over the country and the world where she likes to photograph and write about her adventures. She graduated from Susquehanna University in 2016 with a degree in communications and photography, and a dream to combine the two with her love for the outdoors.

Sarah is still new to the Finger Lakes area and finds herself falling more in love with Ithaca with every new waterfall she discovers. She is so happy to be a part of the Ithaca Forest Preschool and Primitive Pursuits team and is excited to grow even closer to her new surroundings.

 

Lead Instructor

Zak Kozlowski 

Zak enjoys sharing the magic of nature and wilderness living with people of all ages. He is proud to have made his own first connections with nature with his Dad in the small village park in Spencer, NY and at his Grandmother’s cottage on Lake Sacandaga.

Zak received an honors degree in Environmental History from Ithaca College. He has served youth in various places such as City Year Philadelphia as well as Stone Environmental Schools of New England, before discovering his way back home with Primitive Pursuits in 2010. He has spent over 10 years teaching programs for Primitive Pursuits, and he still loves growing connections here. He has since furthered his own growth by taking courses through organizations such as the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, Game of Logging, Vermont Wilderness School, Primitive Pursuits’ own Adult Workshops, and Tim Drake’s “Nature of Growth” Coaching program. He also is passionate about sharing and appreciating art, making people laugh, and being a mindful human being. You can follow his art on Instagram and his forestry work at Wildfoodforestry.com.

instructor

Maggie Wise

Maggie is driven by her professional philosophy of exposing people to the greatness around them and within them through immersing them in nature, physical and mental challenges, and community, in order to empower aware, connected, and compassionate stewards of our planet and our species.

Her connection to nature and to others began in in the murky, brown waters of Ohio’s Grand River where she would spend countless hours catching crawfish, skipping stones, and sharing s’mores and stories with friends over a campfire. She is a recent graduate of Ithaca College with a degree in Outdoor Adventure Leadership. She hopes to utilize her degree to pursue further outdoor and experiential learning degrees so that she may one day open an all-female, preschool through high school, outdoor-education based school with the goal of empowering young women through leadership opportunities, community and connection, and the outdoors.

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 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.

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

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...

read more

GROWING WILD SUMMER CAMP
@ 4-H Acres

We will have 8 Weeks of half-day Growing Wild Summer Camp at 4-H Acres for ages 3-5. Each day the kids get to romp in the woods and find natural materials, such as clay, rock-paint, bark, and leaves to create works of woodland art.

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Preschool Starts on Monday!

We can’t wait to get started! Trillium Camp is quiet in the moments between summer camp and our Preschool season but everything is ready and waiting for our preschoolers to arrive on Monday.

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GROWING WILD SUMMER CAMP
@ Ellis Hollow

We will have 2 Weeks of half-day Growing Wild Summer Camp at Ellis Hollow Community Center for ages 3-5. Each day the kids get to romp in the woods and find natural materials, such as clay, rock-paint, bark, and leaves to create works of woodland art.

read more

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.