ODC expands nature-based preschool opportunities around Holland

The Outdoor Discovery Center Education Network is expanding its nature-based preschool offerings to Holland's northside with a campus on a portion of the former Park Township Airport property.

“In the end, it will be a mini version of the Outdoor Discovery Center on the northside of town,” says ODC Chief Executive Officer Travis Williams. “There is going to be a massive investment into changing the look and feel of that property.”

Dragonflies Discovery Preschool is slated to open in the fall of 2022.

Construction schedule

Excavation will start soon with construction beginning at the end of August. Work will take about a year and include extensive restoration of natural habitats in the 11-acre parcel on 152nd Avenue, north of the Park Township Hall.

The ODC is a play-based preschool that uses natural playgrounds designed to make use of existing topography and natural materials to create an open-ended outdoor play area for children to make discoveries and interact with their environment. 

The preschool will also have four preschool classrooms with a fifth classroom to support a wraparound childcare model.

Another building will be an education and training center to offer training for partner schools and other programs. The freestanding buildings will be connected with covered walkways, “California style,” Williams says.

However, class time will be spent predominantly outdoors.

Outside, there will be art and reading areas, public trails, wetlands, ponds, a meadow, and natural playscapes.

Back to nature

A portion of the property will be reforested with trees native to the property prior to its development.

The ODC is working to raise the last $1.3 million to pay for the $4 million project. Karen and Larry Mulder and family contributed the vast majority of the capital needed for the new campus.

Herrick District Library is also planning a small satellite library on the campus.

“It will serve our school, which is a great thing for our school, but it will also provide a place for people to pick up books,” Williams says.

A book vending machine will allow patrons to pick up materials they have put on hold through the library.

By adding wrap-around child care, scholarships, and partnering with the Great Start to Readiness Preschool Program through the ISD, the new education center will reach those for whom traditional tuition based preschool hasn’t been an option. 

“For employers it’s a major issue and a need,” Williams says.

Early childhood education was always a part of the Outdoor Discovery Center’s longterm plan, Williams says.

The 20-year-old nonprofit’s biggest user group has always been young families, and getting them engaged in programming is key, he says.

No child left inside

The Outdoor Discovery Center’s nature-based preschool model is based on research that shows children’s brains develop most rapidly in the first few years and full sensory experiences such as those they receive in nature (with touch, smell, sight, and hearing fully engaged) build fine motor skills, core body strength and other essential skills.

“If you don’t deal with the social emotional stuff first, the other (intellectual development) won’t happen,” Williams says.

The West Coast Chamber of Commerce donated the land to the airport with the understanding that if the airport were to close, the property would revert back to the chamber.

The ODC finalized its purchase of the 11-acre portion earlier this year.

With the addition of Dragonflies, ODC will double the number of preschool students it can serve in West Michigan to nearly 200.

Popular demand

The ODC started its first preschool in 2013 with Little Hawks on its main campus.

“Before we had even hired a teacher and had a classroom in place, we filled the program,” Williams says. “Every year since then, demand has skyrocketed.”

The waitlist for enrollment consistently has more than 100 children on it, he says.

In the past year, the ODC started Seedlings Preschool out of Pillar Church. The nonprofit is also working with Beechwood Church to create a temporary preschool to fill the need for early childhood education and care until its permanent Northside campus opens next year.

A dearth of affordable, available childcare, including preschool, is a barrier for employers looking to attract new employees to West Michigan, Williams says.

“Child care is crucial to employers and families alike throughout our community,” says Jane Clark, President and CEO of the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce.

The need

Tami Mannes, director of early childhood services with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, estimates that there are more than 400 children near this site that don’t have access to preschool services.  

“We are excited to see this project take shape,” she says. “Preschool is a top driver of kindergarten readiness and future school success.”

For details about ODC, to donate to the project, or to enroll a child in any of the ODC’s education programs, email odc@outdoordiscovery.org. Se habla Español en vanessa@outdoordiscovery.org.

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.