Integrated 4K Programming
The Kettle Moraine YMCA, through a partnership with the West Bend School District, Riveredge Nature Center and the Washington County Head Start program, has created an innovative, engaging, highly inclusive and successful preschool program. This program has been built upon strong collaborative relationships between community agencies that share a common philosophy about preschool education. The collaboration’s mission is to provide high quality preschool experiences that inspire children to learn language, literacy, math, science, social-emotional, and problem-solving skills through developmentally appropriate, intentionally designed, play-based and experiential learning opportunities. Additionally, this collaborative team believes strongly in the positive impact of nature based learning experiences on the development of preschool aged children. This shared belief led to the creation of a truly nature-based 4K program that is free for children within the school district. Additionally, there is a strong focus on parent involvement and engagement with the intent of positively impacting the families of our youngest learners.
A partnership was developed between the Kettle Moraine YMCA, the West Bend School District, and Riveredge Nature Center in the fall of 2016 and has continued to flourish, kicking off the third year of the program just this past fall. Additionally, there has been the development of six community based, free, public school four-year-old kindergarten options. Currently, there are three 4K classrooms at the Kettle Moraine YMCA’s main campus building. Also, there are classrooms at three satellite YMCA child care centers: the YMCA at Our Savior’s Church; the YMCA at Trinity Lutheran Church and the YMCA at Holy Trinity Church.
The YMCA at Holy Trinity Church offers a unique learning opportunity for children within the community. Through a grant from the United Way of Washington County, financial support was provided that lead to the development of a Nature-Based Four-Year-Old Kindergarten option; here, children spend 70% of their time at school engaged in outdoor, nature based educational setting. The children enrolled in this program attend school twice weekly at the YMCA child care location on the campus of the Holy Trinity Church site and spend the opposite days at Riveredge Nature Center, located just 2 miles away. The majority of their time at Riveredge is spent in an outdoor learning environment, regardless of the weather. Substantial research that supports the impact of nature-based preschool learning on the overall school readiness and literacy achievement of children has been conducted and has concluded that “Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills. (Pyle, 2002)” A 2006 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics clearly states that unstructured play is critical to a child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. This same report states, “As parents choose child care and early education programs for their children, pediatricians can reinforce the importance of choosing settings that offer more than ‘academic preparedness.’ They should be guided to also pay attention to whether the settings attend to the social and emotional developmental needs of the children.” These needs are specifically addressed within the nature-based model.
The Nature Based 4K program has been highly successful, generating strong community engagement; with student enrollment at capacity and strong academic, social-emotional and cognitive learning outcomes. Additionally, children enrolled in this program receive a free one-year family membership to Riveredge Nature Center, allowing them to extend their learning within a natural setting and with their families. Riveredge Nature Center provides multiple family-focused learning events that are open to all children who attend 4K within the West Bend School District.
The success of the Nature Based 4K and the core belief that children learn best when they are engaged in active, outdoor learning has inspired the Kettle Moraine YMCA to expand nature based options to the main campus’ program. Through funds from the United Way Grant allocation and with the help of community volunteers, an outdoor, natural playground was constructed on the grounds of the YMCA’s campus. Currently, there are 98 children enrolled in this program. Their preschool experience has enriched through learning opportunities; both structured and unstructured that occur daily on the nature based playground.
In addition to our strong emphasis on nature based learning, the Kettle Moraine YMCA welcomes and embraces children of all abilities into the 4K classrooms through a collaboration with the West Bend School District. Several classrooms offer a ‘co-taught’ learning environment, where special education staff and regular education early childhood staff members work together to meet the needs of all learners. Together we have successfully served children with all kinds of special education needs including Autism, Down Syndrome, auditory impairments, visual impairments, social-emotional and/or behavioral challenges, learning disabilities, speech-language delays and those who have experienced significant developmental trauma. These children with special needs have grown exponentially within this model.
The positive impact of an inclusive environment extends beyond children with special needs, but instead to all children and families within the program. One parent of a typical developmental four-year-old within this program wrote, “My son has benefitted from the WBSD's 4K program at the Kettle Moraine YMCA in ways I never even considered. Within the typical classroom setting, children with special needs learn right alongside their peers. Because of this, the benefits to my son are extended! Not only are there more teachers and aides within the classroom to help with hands-on learning, but my son experiences, at the age of 4, differences among peers who may learn differently in one regard or another. Being taught empathy and inclusion is not something that was on my radar for my son to learn in 4K, but it's incredible to know that these essential social skills are a part of the learning environment just like the basics of shapes, letters, and numbers.” Because this program has been so successful, the Kettle Moraine YMCA is working with the West Bend School District to expand inclusive and supported options for preschool aged children with disabilities within the Y’s typical menu of programming, beginning with youth development classes.
The collaborative partnership with the West Bend School District and Riveredge Nature Center has allowed the Y to offer children and families multiple options for high quality preschool experiences. This partnership also inspired the Y to add other community organizations and expand our services to include more children who come from homes stricken with poverty. The Washington County Head Start program provides preschool experiences to children whose families meet the federal guidelines for poverty. Prior to this partnership, children who were eligible for this program were educated within classrooms comprised solely of children who lived in poverty. This classroom setting did not represent the typical diversity noted in general education environments. Without diverse classroom settings, children with poverty do not have the same opportunities to learn language skills and social-emotional skills through peer relationships as compared to children from professional class families. University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (5) wrote about the discrepancy between the number of words and types of messages heard by children living in professional class homes in comparison to children who live in working class families and homes of poverty. Within the first four years of life, children from professional class families hear 45 million words, children from working class families hear 26 million and children who live in poverty hear only 13 million. Strong vocabulary development is foundational for academic learning. In addition to considering the number of words heard, these researchers examined the kinds of messages that were spoken within each socioeconomic class. The outcome of the study determined that professional class families provided their children with significantly more messages of praise in comparison to working class families and that children from families on welfare received more discouraging comments than encouraging. The decreased exposure to words and depressed rate of encouragement places children from working class families and homes of poverty at a disadvantage academically, socially and emotionally.
To increase opportunities for children who live in poverty within the service area, the YMCA created a partnership with the Washington County Head Start program. Children who enroll in this program are integrated into regular 4K classrooms, allowing them to benefit from a diverse mix of socioeconomic groups of children. Through this partnership, we have been able to decrease the staff to student ratio enabling more children to receive the positive impact of additional professional educators within their classroom setting. Children enrolled in 4K as part of the Head Start program receive a full day of education in comparison to the standard half day model. Following their 4K morning, children who qualify for Head Start receive lunch and then engage in an afternoon of enrichment activities that include the Y’s Safety Around Water program, a youth development class that focuses on cooking and science, and sports fusion course that emphasizes health and fitness. Each Head Start family also receives a free family membership to encourage families to participate in Y programs without the barrier of a financial burden.
Through strong collaborative partnerships, the YMCA has created rich, preschool programming that impacts children in a way that extends beyond simply building early academic skills. The integration of nature based learning emphasizes problem solving skills, the ability to persist when challenges arise and the ability to work collaboratively within teams to find solutions. The full integration of students with disabilities not only benefits the students with special needs, but teaches all children about empathy, acceptance and how to lift one another up by focusing on individual strengths. The collaborative Head Start program provides access to children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in the extended learning opportunities offered through the YMCA. The program is a true example of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Together, we are building skills in children that will positively impact their academic performance, but more importantly will help them rise to become leaders through strong problem-solving skills, by persisting when things are hard, through empathy and compassion and through confidence gained from being successful within these supportive environments.
Additional Parent Testimonials
- "We are a semi outdoors family, nothing extreme but do spend time outside. In just these few months we have seen our student grow in what is happening in nature and connecting with what she is learning at school with home. We had a family member comment on her that she has no fear of bugs and "creatures," they were so impressed that she saw a spider, gently picked it up and moved it to safety. Not scared, not grossed out or nothing, just understood it was part of nature. She even commented she is excited for the frog pond to "thaw" so she can try to catch a frog like some kids this Fall, she thinks she is ready to do that!"
- "The nature program is amazing. It is a unique and effective way to teach. Couldn't be happier."
- "Excellent program for the kids, McKenna loves to go to River Edge and loves that she gets to play outside in the mud for school!"
- "Ice fishing, snow shoeing, sledding, looking for tracks in the snow...What's not to love!"
- "LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, the nature-based program...10/10 would recommend, glad we went with this."
- "A new appreciation for nature has been ignited."
- "Assists kids that aren't sure about outdoors and helps broaden their horizons with nature!"
- "The learning that is taking place is wonderful and the work on independence is noticeable. Our student comes home so impressed with things she has done."
- "Exposes children to activities they may not have a chance to experience with their own families. Has expanded my child's vocabulary."'
- "Strong program, I would recommend it to all my friends of future 4K students."
- "Amazing how everyone comes together and brings out the positive back into school, it is the teachers teaching and the parents follow, like it was, as the kids get older, I find they are relying on the parents more than teachers."