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Nature-Based Education in the Heart of the City

Aspen Grove School’s thoughtful, engaging, and effective approach to childhood learning

Sharon Jayakumar, a Philadelphia parent, struggled to find an early childhood school for her young son. Many of the spaces had no natural light. They didn’t go outside much. She recalls, “We were either on a waitlist or we’d have to go somewhere I didn’t love.” 


So she started her own; Aspen Grove is a mission-driven, nature-based school in the heart of Philadelphia, which values the importance of being little. 


“We believe childhood is a magical time. Our cause is to preserve and nurture the magic and wonder of childhood. And the way to do that is to create a learning experience that is centered on a strong relationship with a child and the community surrounding that child – an Aspen tree rarely stands alone. Its roots are interconnected and it shares space and nutrients with other trees. So we aim to be that community, impacting the children who will someday impact the world.”


Located in a former historic church, the space has been completely modernized while keeping the original aesthetics of sweeping ceilings and beautiful stained-glass windows. The space is filled with natural light across 20,000 square feet, allowing plenty of room for the approximately 200 students, from 6-week-olds to pre-Kers to run – or crawl! – around from 7:30-5 PM, the duration of their regular day (aftercare is also offered from 5 – 6 pm). The amount of space allows for an incredible number of learning opportunities and places to explore, including three separate gross motor spaces – one for each age group –  a climbing wall for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds olds, and classrooms on three floors.


They follow the pedagogy of Reggio-inspired learning in which the environment is the third teacher and the unique development of all children is appreciated. It includes the incorporation of natural shapes and textures, as well as intentionally and purposefully set up classrooms to maximize the role of imagination and free play. Nature comes inside, too, with natural materials to investigate and special visits from the Insectarium, and programming by Nature Jack.


The children take walks to local parks, often collecting bits of nature to explore in the classroom

But it’s often what happens outside that further spurs learning. “Nature is our Teacher” is a core value of the school and all children – from babies to children in preK – spend time outdoors everyday.  Their philosophy is best explained by this quote:


“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in” – John Muir.


Aligned with this quote, there is much evidence to show that when children engage with nature and spend time outdoors, they are better at self-regulating, problem solving, and developing a sound sense of self.


Bringing learning outdoors, the children sing songs, read books, and explore their surroundings while playing outside


Sharon wants to ensure that nature is a daily part of children’s lives, so the leadership team has a score card that tracks that children go out every day, taking weather into account. Outdoor excursions include walking trips, visits to the Marian Anderson recreation center, Carpenter Green Park, and the community garden. 


Everything outside becomes a natural lesson – they incorporate indoor lessons and curriculum into an outdoor classroom at a park, guiding children on language skills, logic, and mathematical reasoning, all using experiences in the natural world as teaching tools.  


“Children manipulate natural, “loose parts” – a tool to stir imagination and allow their natural curiosity and engineering instinct to thrive; Loose parts are open ended – a stick can be a fishing rod one day and part of a house the next … children are meaning-makers and the best thing we can do is to make space for their imaginations,” says Sharon.


Plant materials were gathered on a walk, and explored upon their return

Parents love the strong nature-based program and believe it greatly benefits their children. Flannery S., says: “Our school’s curriculum is thoughtful and engaging and the teachers/staff are kind and inclusive. We love that our child is able to go outside (weather permitting) for walks in the neighborhood and to local parks. I didn’t realize how much our family would enjoy AGS’s nature-based approach to our child’s development.”


Sharon credits the teaching staff for the excellent experience parents rave about. “I can have a brilliant vision and a beautiful space but it’s only as good as the people who execute it. Aspen Grove has an incredible team of teachers and a very strong management team that goes the distance. They are foot soldiers of the vision and they make it happen every day.”


Each age group has a gross motor playroom where they can run, climb, and more


All teachers are credentialed; Lead teachers have Bachelor’s degrees in Education or a related field and several also have their Master’s degrees in Education. Assistant teachers, too, have at least a CDA (Child Development Credential) and many have degrees.


The focus on nature has greatly prepared its “graduates” for the future. Says parent Kurt S.: “Our school, Aspen Grove, is a beautiful facility which cherishes nature education and outdoor time. Our older child was extremely well prepared through Pre-K and was years ahead of our expectations on reading, writing, and personal interactions when departing to kindergarten. The school leadership and teachers are so passionate about childhood education and each has a loving relationship with both our children in the school.”


Learn more about Aspen Grove School at their Open House events on October 5th and November 9th! You can RSVP here


You can also visit their website: www.aspengrovephilly.com and contact them at:  Aspen Grove Inquiry



This story was written for the Philadelphia Family Community by Stef Arck-Baynes. On-site photography by Polina Bulman Photography.

The Aspen Grove School is a nature-based program where learning is substantive, yet joyful, playful and experiential. As a Reggio-inspired school, children learn by making key connections - to themselves, to community and to nature and spend time outdoors everyday. Credentialed teachers serve as guides to a child's own natural curiosity , using the Loose Parts approach to learning. Our Pre-school and Pre-K programs incorporate Literacy, Math, STEM, Spanish and Music through a partnership with Settlement Music School. The environment is the third teacher - their classrooms are spacious and aesthetically pleasing, filled with natural light and intentionally prepared with invitation to play and explore. The school features 3 large gross motor spaces set up for each age group.