Collage Day School gets back to the ‘roots’ of learning

Exploring nature, making mistakes and being a good person are all on the curriculum


From the moment toddlers start to process the world around them, parents are encouraging them to learn from it. Counting, coloring, naming and feeling – preschool children are working their way to hitting milestones and preparing themselves for kindergarten and then beyond.

Recently, there has been a trend toward not only preparing children for school but preparing them for life. Collage Day School in Ponte Vedra looks to ask a question that doesn’t get asked very often in traditional academics: What do people actually need to succeed?

The road from little people to big people is a long one and not everything can be taught from a book – or, in the case of growing up these days – an iPad, according to the school’s philosophy. With 8-acres of land, chickens, rabbits and a butterfly house, Collage Day School teaches children to explore and to become inspired by the world around them.

“We are really going to back to the roots of childhood here,” said founder Dr. Katie Falwell. “It's a more naturalistic approach. You're not going to see a lot of prefab toys or things that light up or sparkle or shine. We are going back to the foundation of loose parts and really letting children's creativity and imagination take over their play.”

Currently, Falwell owns two campuses in Ponte Vedra Beach, the Collage Day School and the Palm Valley Development Center. Both focus on the whole child, with the Palm Valley Development Center centering on children with developmental disabilities. Falwell believes, however, that every child benefits from having hands-on access to nature.

Falwell implements the TimberNook curriculum in the classrooms, which is a nature-based developmental program that fosters outdoor play.  The program is designed to be sensory-rich and was developed by a pediatric occupational therapist who was interested in connections between children’s developmental coordination and limited outdoor activities.

Dr. Falwall said that she believes outdoor play is effective in nurturing a child’s confidence and ability to succeed in the home and in school. She encourages “reasonable risks” and engaging in “self-directed play,” something that many children are seeing less and less of.

“When we were younger, we bounced around in the back of the station wagon, we weren’t really strapped into anything,” Falwell said. “Now, even as babies, we are put into containers for everything. The ability to move or even fall and have healthy risk-taking behaviors have been minimized in the last few years. The helicopter parent has really taken over.”

In conjunction with the confidence, coordination and social skills children build from outdoor activities, the school also implements the “Dinosaur School” curriculum, which is guided by in-house psychologists that teach children emotional and character development skills.

Part of the skills that students learn is “Watching Faces.” The activity helps them read faces to see if their friends are sad or angry and teaches them how to approach them and ask if they want help. The idea behind the program is that by fostering these skills at a young age, children will be able to withstand the emotional challenges during their teen years.

Like driving a car, being able to process emotions and appreciate the living world takes time and a little effort. The difference being driving isn’t mandatory, one can live without learning. What is mandatory ⁠— inevitable even ⁠— is growing up. All children grow up and become adults navigating through a world of other adults. An adult that hopefully, if they are given the right tools from an early age, is a really good driver.


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