Natural curiosity

Sense of wonder: Natureplay Preschool gives kids a hands-on learning experience. photo courtesy of Natureplay
Sense of wonder: Natureplay Preschool gives kids a hands-on learning experience. photo courtesy of Natureplay

“That rosy-cheeked, open-eyed, big-smiled expression — that’s what I’m looking for,” says Amica Venturi, co-founder of Natureplay Preschool in West Asheville. “You can learn anything when you’re in that state.”

Venturi and her husband, Ken Huck, opened their nature-based preschool in 2006, after moving to Asheville from California. A preschool teacher for more than 25 years, Venturi had dreamed of using all her past experience to build her own business.

Then, while looking for a home, the couple came across the perfect location for a school that would enable students to experience nature firsthand. “We found this amazing two-acre property with a stream, and it just called to be a space for children,” says Venturi. “Immediately we wanted to do something big, but it was hard to find a loan.”

So they started small, with a five-child, licensed preschool at their home, serving children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old.

Natureplay offers more than daycare, Venturi emphasizes. “I’m not a daycare provider. I don’t baby-sit. I’m an intentional teacher, and …  I wake up every morning thinking about how to make these lives better.”

Education at Natureplay is not based on flashcards and youngsters sitting in rows; instead, it’s all about nature, experience and curiosity.

“If a child is outside, breathing fresh air, and picks up a rock to find a salamander — when they look up that species in a book, even if they can’t read yet, they are really excited about the visceral experience,” says Venturi. In essence, a natural environment sparks the desire to learn. “It’s not what they learn, but that they’re excited about learning more,” she says.

More structured educational environments stifle curiosity instead of nurturing it, Venturi suggests. “If [children are] already bored at 3 or 4 years old, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. They don’t want to do it.”

But if motivated to learn, they naturally pick up some amazing things. “When they’re taking my fake blood pressure [with toy medical equipment], they’re saying, ‘Here, let me use the sphygmomanometer,’” says Venturi. “When we’re learning about the rocks of North Carolina, I use the real scientific names. I don’t care how old they are, they don’t need [the lesson] to be dumbed down. Children need to feel that they’re competent.”

During the business’ first six years, Venturi held onto her dream of doing more. When the economy started improving, she rebooted her search for capital. “We had been through many, many banks and credit unions, and we finally found Mountain BizWorks. Meeting with Patrick Doran, [Mountain BizWorks’ small business lender], it really touched me because my soul yearns to do this. Being a preschool teacher is who I am. I needed to do something big and he really got it.”

Venturi and Huck are using their BizWorks loan to install a modular classroom, which will quadruple their space and enable them to serve four times more children, with a wider age range.

Money hasn’t been the only obstacle. The couple’s small budget, personal ecological standards and some city regulations have caused delays. For example, “In the Asheville development regulations, child care was mostly required to be in commercial zones — so our children often end up along busy roads, next to gas stations, and … auto body shops. In my view, the young are best served when they are protected from the pollutants that concentrate with intense use,” says Venturi. “In order to realize our vision of an eco-preschool, we had to ask the city for adjustments in the zoning of our campus. The people of the neighborhood were very supportive, perhaps because they know that preschool children fit well near where they live.”

Despite the challenges, work is progressing. Venturi is optimistic that they will be able to welcome new students in late summer, which is a great time to take advantage of all the property has to offer, including dozens of fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a meadow and a shallow stream full of frogs, crayfish and salamanders.

“Now that I’m older and have been in this profession for a while, I trust that children will learn,” says Venturi. “I’m looking for how I can be the butterfly — to find out what might be interesting to them, and help facilitate that.”

Learn more about Natureplay Preschool at http://www.naturepreschool.com or call 350-7529.

— Mountain BizWorks helps small businesses start, grow and create jobs through loans, classes and coaching. For more information, call 253-2834 or visit mountainbizworks.org.

Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.

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