New Episcopal church preschool lets children's interests shape lessons

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kate Pickering, 2, plays in the water table at the playground at St. Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church in Bethany.At the new St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church Preschool, the primary subject children will focus on is, well, learning itself.

“Subject matter can vary, but the skill sets are the same,” says Rev. LouAnn Pickering, vicar at St. Gabriel’s. “Once (children) really love learning, they can do anything. Once they have the tools, the sky’s the limit through the entire educational process.”

The church at 17435 N.W. West Union Road in the Bethany area opened its preschool on Tuesday in a new section of the church building. Following an extensive capital campaign, work began last December on the space, along with a nature-oriented playground area outside the church building.

The preschool, which church leaders conceived and planned over the past three years, is open to children aged 3-to-5 years old from all backgrounds and faiths.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ella Murry, 8, left, and her sisters, Leah, 5, Victoria, 10, play in the sandbox in the new playground at St. Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church in Bethany.

Based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy established in Italy after World War II, St. Gabriel’s in its three-hour preschool classes stresses the role of nature and children’s individual inclinations and proclivities over a boilerplate approach to teaching.

“It’s about nature-centered living and awareness of the world at large,” Pickering says. “The idea is to open the heart to the possibilities of divinity and holiness, but let the heart work in its own way. We learn best when we’re surrounded by a diverse community. We understand that differences between us are not right or wrong. They simply are.”

Page Clothier, the church’s creative and educational director, notes the approach allows teachers to develop lessons and ideas based on what an individual child is drawn to.

“It’s a child-centered curriculum,” she says. “Teachers take cues from children in terms of what they want to learn about. The goal is to create lifelong learners.”

The preschool starts off its first year with four to eight students, with the ability to accommodate 15 in morning and afternoon sessions. Lessons and activities are interactive and documented, with the idea of establishing ongoing connections using elements of nature, culture, art, music, letters, numbers, books, photographs and more.

“On any given day, we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Clothier says. “There are things we will all be surprised by every day. This breeds curiosity, creativity and excitement. It intrigues children and keeps them engaged.”

An art piece or project a student creates might be documented with a photograph and referred to later.

“Those three hours a day are very geared toward interest-driven development,” says Anna DeSalvo, St. Gabriel’s academic director and the preschool’s lead teacher. “We play, and play is learning at this age ... It creates long-term memory connections.”

If the approach sounds unconventional or free-form, DeSalvo stresses that distinct learning goals and preparation for kindergarten and elementary school are part of the plan.

“Students are expected by the end of the year to have the ability to read and do (mathematical) addition,” she says, noting the standards are designed to build “the ability to persevere and build 21st century problem-solving skills.”

“Children learn best when someone is above them,” she adds, “but not too much above them.”

The school’s new playground, designed and built with volunteer labor during the summer, emphasizes learning through nature, play and experimentation. In addition to a naturally sloped slide and other play equipment, the bark chip-covered area includes a sandbox and a section for kids to dig using miniature shovels and other tools.

“The playground is designed to help children navigate their way in the world,” Clothier says. “It’s more open ended, so (they can) figure out how to use a shovel. They have to make mistakes and work at it, so it’s like, ‘Oh, this is how you get a load of dirt without getting it in your eye.’ It makes them feel safe and confident. We just relax and let them play.”

The school leaders are hopeful the colorful new preschool area and playground are just the beginning of St. Gabriel’s growing commitment to education. Future plans call for a new educational wing at the church with two dedicated preschool classrooms.

For now, Pickering and her fellow church educators look forward to a fall season of children learning and experiencing at St. Gabriel’s.

“This is exciting,” she says. “It’s been a dream of ours for a long time.”

For information on the St. Gabriel Episcopal Church preschool, visit, or call 503-645-0744.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Payden Randall and Jackson De Salvo, both 4, watch 9-year-old Bennett Crawford push a wheelbarrow at the preschool playground at St. Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church.