Lancaster Nursery School uses free play and exploration to lead students

LANCASTER — Opening a business at the start of the coronavirus pandemic may have seemed impossible, but it’s been a good two years for founder and director Joanna Johns and Explore Me A Story – Mindful Nature Preschool.

Operating out of Grace United Church of Christ in Lancaster, the preschool offers a program that encourages preschoolers to learn in a not-so-traditional way, using the church’s playground and land to explore.

Johns, with 20 years of experience in education, decided to open the preschool after the Explore Me a Story classes it offered became popular.

“Several parents asked me if I intended to open a school, as they were very keen on the program. I decided to give it a shot, got the license through (Ohio) Job and Family Services and I was really committed to that,” she said. “Then COVID-19 hit. We played it by ear, but I started this year with eight kids in class in August. Now the class has grown to 21.”

Joanna Johns founded Explore Me A Story Preschool in 2020, building on hosting classes with the same philosophy of educating children, learning and discovering through play.

She added that most of those freshmen, those who were young enough to stay, came back for a second year. The nursery school teaches children aged three to five, with a slot available for a two-and-a-half-year-old.

“Once they are old enough, the children are ready to start kindergarten. that their kids are surrounded by so many other kids,” Johns said. noted. “COVID-19 hasn’t really affected us, as we try to stay outside as much as possible. If the weather is not dangerous, we will have the children outside.”

When outside, the classroom is a fenced-in play area just outside the church, complete with a seesaw and sandbox. There’s also a small pavilion in one corner, a painting area, a play kitchen, and a “build” area, where kids can stack blocks together.

Johns explained that classes start indoors, with phonics, reading, writing and arithmetic work. When children go outside, they can learn through free play.

“We try to let them experience what they want to experience while giving them some direction. For example, some children may start building something, and we will let them explore it, to follow that impulse,” he said. she declared. “By providing engaging activities that stimulate the desire to learn, it inspires them to explore and investigate.”

Students at Explore Me A Story Kindergarten work together to move a gravel cart on February 15.  The school's philosophy of education

“It’s child-directed learning. We let them play and follow the patterns they have, we let them follow their interests. We give them a solid foundation and a strong sense of self, letting them learn their own needs. It’s not just a four-hour playtime.”

Classes have full access to the grounds, exploring and learning in the property’s woods. Johns said other organizations are stopping to offer other educational experiences, like gardening and reading groups.

The program proved popular enough that Johns considered increasing the school’s indoor capacity. With access to the play area, she said she is allowed to have 60 children outside, but inside she is limited by the space available.

“I don’t want to rent the space until I need it, but I have considered allowing some growth inside. At the moment our advertising is mainly by word of mouth, but we also have some online presence,” she said. “We have a pretty big county-wide draw, so we’ll see how things go next year.”

A common question from parents usually relates to discipline: with an open class concept, there are bound to be conflicts, so how do Johns and his staff deal with them?

Finn Meade reads a dinosaur book with Hocking College student Carlie Cope during a free play at Explore Me a Story Nursery School in Lancaster on February 15.

“I have the philosophy that no child is just bad for being bad. They may just need help, if it looks like they are acting out. We are working to find out why they may be hurting or why they did wrong for another student,” she said. “We look at the needs of the children. They may know that what they are doing may not be right, but they may not know how to put it into words or why. We’re working to help them make that connection.”

“We get them to see, know and express what’s bothering them before they act.”

Johns is assisted by the students’ parents throughout the year and assistant teacher Brandy White helps him throughout the day. And in accordance with JFS and Health Department guidelines, parents and adults are asked to wear masks when students are indoors, along with any children whose parents also ask them to wear masks. Johns said parents have been understanding throughout the pandemic, observing symptoms and reporting concerns.

“For the most part it has been treated like any other communicable disease. They are keeping their children home if they have been exposed and self-isolating when needed. They are delighted with what we have done so far. present,” she said. .

Although the school is designed to be for-profit, Johns said she is working on a scholarship to help a family in need, especially as the school has grown in popularity. Funding is a major concern, but she said she was working on a solution.

Preschool follows the traditional school year and offers two days of preschool per week in the summer, which serves to acclimate new students and keep everyone in a pattern for the school year. Johns said families can also stay in touch.

She said enrollment and program information can be found on the school’s website at or his social media page.

Barrett Lawlis is a reporter for the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, part of the USA Today Network. Submit story ideas or feedback to or call 740-681-4342. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettLawlis

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