With its bamboo floor, light tables, natural wooden pencils, lack of traditional "toys," outdoor garden and compost bin, it's immediately clear that the Natural Learning Community Children’s School is not your typical early childhood center.
The school, which officially opens today at 110 Hopmeadow St., Monday, bills itself as an “ecofriendly," “play based” and “child-centered” institution.
“Our curriculum is centered on their children and based on their interests," said Brandi Wirz, owner/operator of the school.
That doesn’t mean it's just free play all day but if a child chases a butterfly or asks about the origins of rain, it opens up a wealth of possible discussions, experiments and art projects, Wirz said. That helps keep children engaged as they learn, Wirz added.
Largely absent throughout are “toys” in the traditional sense. However, depending on the age there are plenty of crayons, paper, natural piece of wood, animal figures, light tables, old baby jars, cardboard tubes and plenty of other materials that urge kids to use their imaginations.
Outside there is PVC pipe, a garden, a composter, a bridge, natural hill slide and a mud kitchen. There, children will also be encouraged to explore.
Inside, age appropriate rooms and materials divide the space. The school accepts those from six months to a preschool for ages 3 to 5.
Wirz ran a childcare center out of her West Hartford home for three years after becoming pregnant with her first child. The need arose out of her own desire for a different approach.
The space previously housed other day-care operations but with Wirz's approach and house-like setup, she essentially had to start from scratch. She said it's fitting that there's approximately 1,500 square feet of space inside and more than twice that outdoors.
At the University of Vermont, from which she has Bachelor's Degrees in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education, Wirz learned about the "Reggio Emilia Approach," which emphasizes respect for the natural world, children, teachers and cultures.
"It's more about the process and the journey," she said.