At First Lutheran Preschool’s outdoor classroom in Ellicott City, Md., God’s creation guides the curriculum. In Houston, the divine enters into daily activities at Zion Lutheran Preschool. As these ELCA schools accompany the youngest learners, they’re building life skills that strengthen their congregations and communities.

Recognizing the importance of more green time and less screen time, First looked to its own backyard. “Many churches are on property that is bigger than a normal school would have,” said Jenny James, preschool director at First.

“If you can use your property in that way to help our society grow and get reconnected with nature, I think that’s a really great thing.”

Now the research, grants, zoning approval and work needed to make their outdoor classroom a reality have expanded learning, play and worship.

“One concept that is easy to dive deep into outside is color,” she said. “Many conversations can be had about the colors of leaves and flowers at different times of the year. Even stones have various colors.”

Seeing caterpillars become butterflies piqued children’s curiosity and led to detailed questions based on what each child noticed. “These are questions that come from living with the butterflies,” James said. “They do not come from worksheets about butterflies.”

“In many ways, the space is bringing hope to our corner of the world.”

The preschoolers are also discovering life within community. “They need each other in a way that’s more authentic,” she said. For example, two-by-fours are a popular toy. “They enjoy building with those,” she added, “and they’ll call for each other to come and help them move them.”

When it’s time for outdoor chapel, James said, “you actually hear the birds singing while you’re singing. It’s like you’re joining with nature in these songs to God.”

James said church members who were already concerned and interested in the environment embraced the shift to outdoor learning. They shared resources of time, talents and treasures while uplifting community members in outdoor vocations.

“We hired a tree-trimming company to inspect our trees,” James said. “One of the men pulled me aside and said he wished he had had this as a child. He later came back with a truck full of free mulch.”

James, who co-authored Dig In: Outdoor STEM Learning With Young Children (Gryphon House, 2022), said faith involves thinking deeply, asking “why” and noticing the good that’s around us.

The outdoor classroom is a natural place to do that. “In many ways,” James said, “the space is bringing hope to our corner of the world.”

Sacred connections

At Zion’s preschool, hurried moments become holy moments.

On Wednesdays, as cars pull up to drop off students, Mindy Roll, pastor of Zion, greets each visitor by name. “I stand in my collar so they know that I’m the pastor, and because I do it every week it’s really this remarkable relationship-building opportunity,” she said. “You learn so much about a family, and then you can celebrate with them, or you can pray with them.”

When Roll began as Zion’s pastor, she said she recognized that both the church and the preschool “do really good work, but sometimes they do it side by side instead of in partnership.” Now they’re joining together through consistent, intentional acts of welcome.

Preschool expectations and boundaries are set in a caring way. “The transition of these kids into kindergarten is often a really good one,” she said, “because they learn what it means to be respectful of teachers and teachers are respectful of them.”

That’s something to be celebrated, and preschool families are invited to special church events such as potluck dinners, movie nights and the annual Oktoberfest.

“A lot of them live in the neighborhood, so they can walk,” Roll said. “They’re starting to see that the church has a community presence that really includes them.”

“They’re starting to see that the church has a community presence that really includes them.”

At summer day camp, “the preschool teachers will come over and they’ll see this 10-year-old that they had as a 3-year-old,” Roll said, describing such encounters as a “homecoming.”

Adults join in the learning through a parenting series, and families serve together by bringing donations for Zion’s food pantry.

Families also explore their faith together. A stations-based worship program called Children’s Church provides “an easy way for families to dip their toes into church life, because it’s really low pressure,” Roll said.

Children and families can choose to receive a blessing after chapel. One 3-year-old asked Roll if he could give her one. “He blessed me, and he did the sign of the cross on my forehead,” she remembered. “And he told me that God loved me.”

Zion and its preschool will continue practices that let each person know that they are “seen and cherished.”

Families notice. In a survey of preschool families’ experiences with church, a common response was “keep inviting us.”

Rachel K. Hindery
Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter and a member of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill.

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