Ithaca forest preschool
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 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.
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, photographer and blogger
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.
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 Fall Mira joined 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!
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.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
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
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
Forest Play Days are a great way to have a look into whether a forest preschool might be right for your family! Get out into the woods and experience total nature immersion. Parents and children birth to age five are invited to join the Ithaca Forest Preschool for a...read more