Inside the nature preschool at Chippewa Nature Center <span class='image-credits'>Ben Tierney</span>

Chippewa Nature Center aims to connect the community to nature

Nature offers a powerful avenue to enhance learning, sensory awareness and helps young children build confidence as they learn new skills. For young or seasoned outdoor advocates, Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center has something to offer, yet it is often the youngest patrons that gain the most from the Center’s many amenities.

Jennifer Kirts, programming director at the Chippewa Nature Center describes the response of an eleven year old participant in the Center’s summer day camps, one of many impactful experiential programs the Center offers for families.

“She watched our program coordinator, a young woman in her early twenties at the time, build a fire. And she said, ‘I didn’t know girls could build fires.’”

“What an amazing thing for kids to have role models who do challenging things, who learn how to build fires, who can teach them how to identify a tree. It just builds tremendous confidence,” adds Kirts. “For kids who may struggle with schooling in the traditional sense, there are a lot of things they can participate in the natural world that isn’t graded. It’s just an experience and an opportunity to learn and practice a skill.”

The Center is a three and a half mile bike ride from the Tridge in downtown Midland. Surrounded by 1,200 acres of land, visitors enjoy 19 hiking trails as well as access to rivers for canoeing and kayaking.

“We consider nature to be our main exhibit, and it changes every day,” says Dennis Pilaske, executive director of the Chippewa Nature Center. “Our mission is to connect people to the natural world, and if they come here and get fired up about what is in their backyard we hope it will lead them to want to preserve it.”

As someone visiting the Center for the first time, I saw that mission in action. Talking with Pilaske at an overlook opening into the Pine River, I wandered through interactive exhibits in the Visitor Center on Michigan history and landscapes, learning about wetlands, woodlands and reptiles unique to this region as well as the Native Americans who first inhabited and cared for this land.

“We can be people’s first step into a relationship with the natural world, but we can also be with them throughout that whole journey,” adds Jenn Kirts, programming director at the center.

Whether you are six months old or an adult, you can find something at the Center. In the winter, the trails are open for cross country skiing and in the summer children enjoy outdoor excursions through several day camps available. Visitors can even take classes in more traditional skills such as basket weaving or soap making.

One program in particular sticks out as unique to this region: nature preschool.

“Our public schools tend to focus on things like standardization. For preschool, we follow creative curriculum,” says Madison Powell, nature preschool director. “Our teachers plan daily using what they’ve seen during that day’s class, so everything that we do is tailored individually to the kids who are in our classes, both their interests and their developmental levels.”

The Center’s preschool began with a pilot program in 2007 and now there are three classrooms, each with a teaching team of three, and a total of seven classes. Marking its eleventh year, for 2017 there are nearly 130 three and four-year olds enrolled. When the preschool program began it was one of a dozen programs of its type; now the Natural Start Alliance boasts nearly 300 nature-based programs country wide.

“They focus on the whole self. They know that teaching is not just academic, it’s social, emotional, psychological,” says Sarah Owens, mother of 3-year old Jameson who attends afternoon preschool at the Center. “They understand that the domains aren’t segmented, that his ability to read and his social confidence are linked, that the more comfortable he feels socially, the more he’ll be able to explore language. And the more he is able to read, the more he will be able to do math.”

Powel and I take a trail to preschool, which features a natural play area. Here you won’t find metal or plastic structures. Instead there is a balance beam, group meeting space, mud kitchen, number line and alphabet all made from wood.

“We try to emphasize place,” adds Powell. “At the end of each day, we have a song. And instead of ‘see you later, alligator’, we say ‘peace out brown trout’. Because that is what you find here. We want children to know the history of Michigan and what is around them.”

Nature Preschool offers discovery-based learning through play, motor activities and creative expression. The curriculum includes art, music, social and cognitive skill development and natural science exploration. The children regularly hike to wooded areas, ponds, fields, and the Homestead Farm.

“I’ll ask what he did any given day and he always starts with: ‘I had an adventure.’ That’s the language he uses to describe school,” says Owens. “He’s already speaking about the connections that he’s making, and how it feels a little family. And that’s his association with school. That it is a place where he is understood, where he can play and explore.”

Families attend preschool from all over the region including Saginaw, Coleman, and Mount Pleasant as well as Midland.

“My son went to preschool here, and on his first day he caught a scarsnake,” adds programming director Jenn Kirts. “When he was curious about something, he was allowed to be. And that’s such a great way to begin learning.”

Started in 1963, the Chippewa Nature Center is over 50 years old and draws nearly 70,000 visitors each year. Over the years an outpouring of both community and foundation support has continued to sustain the Center. Earlier this year, the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation announced a grant to support operations from 2018 to 2020.

“We are learning that the Center is becoming people’s backyard green space. We had people who used to go to their grandparents’ farms, where they caught frogs and would run around in the woods. That’s happening for fewer people, so this has become that natural home.” says Kirts, “Through interacting with our programs we hope one day they will be advocates for green space and stewards of the natural world. It can start with something as simple as sitting and watching birds at a bird feeder.”

The Chippewa Nature Center is open to visitors, free of charge, all year round. For more information, visit or contact CNC at
Signup for Email Alerts