Sparking Curiosity

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4PreK teacher Ella Slaker talks with a preschool student at the Rowland Hall Beginning School located in Salt Lake City, Utah

Beginning School: 3PreK, 4PreK, and Kindergarten

Welcome to Rowland Hall's independent private preschool, an exceptional place for young children in Utah to learn. Early childhood is a time of incredible brain development, and you'll find actively engaged learners within our classrooms and outdoor spaces.

When you enter the Beginning School, it’s immediately clear: this is a place tailor-made to amplify the power and magic of young children. The intentional and joyous celebration of Rowland Hall’s youngest learners reverberates in every corner. And in every classroom and play space, you’ll find master teachers who are at the heart of what we do: provide experiences that encourage curiosity, compassion, expression, and deep thinking. In the Beginning School, students learn how to think, not merely what to think.

I am honored to be a part of this special place that fosters such exceptional learning and teaching in a warm and inclusive community. I hope you’ll come for a visit to see what I see, and—more importantly—what our students see.


Emma Wellman 
Beginning School and Lower School Principal

Independent Private Beginning School Principal - Emma Wellman - Salt Lake City, Utah

Emma Wellman
Beginning School and Lower School Principalget to know Emma

Contact the Beginning School

720 Guardsman Way
Salt Lake City, Utah 84108

Photo Gallery

A Rowland Hall beginning school class jumps in the air in the nature yard outside of their McCarthey Campus classroom.
A Rowland Hall preschool students examines dirt with a magnifying glass in their classroom.
Rowland Hall preschoolers laugh while sitting at a fine-motor skill table in their Salt Lake City, Utah classroom.

Beginning School Stories in Fine Print Magazine

Rowland Hall's Open Lab hours give preschool- through elementary-aged children time to experiment.

Since its opening in fall 2022, the McCarthey Campus’s TREC Lab—short for ​​Technology, Robotics, Engineering, and Coding Lab—has been an exciting place for students to explore a variety of STEM projects during their specialty classes. This year, the lab expanded its offerings with a new opportunity: Open Lab.

Offered twice a week and available to all McCarthey Campus students, Open Lab allows classes, small groups, and individual students to access the TREC Lab outside designated class time. Students can use the space—and its tools, technology, and materials—to work on projects, as well as exercise choice and voice as they explore the STEM activities and supplies they’re most interested in, including micro:bits, Scratch coding software, 3D printers, LEGOs, and even craft supplies. 

Open Lab can be an adventure of choice. It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.—Kaelis Sandstrom, TREC teacher

“Open Lab can be an adventure of choice,” said TREC teacher Kaelis Sandstrom. “It’s time to use the lab’s tools, figure out a way to put things together, do collaborative work rooted in play, and explore.” 

Whatever a child chooses during Open Lab, they’re engaging in active and beneficial learning, getting familiar with STEM thinking in all its forms. That’s because giving children chances to tinker freely helps them get familiar with materials, experiment and explore, problem solve, get resourceful, and engage in design thinking, among other benefits. Fifth-grade classmates Jules O. and Zoe Y., for example, have enjoyed Open Lab this year because it gives them the chance to experiment and build with the TREC Lab’s wooden domino sets. Both girls say the tactile nature of this activity is important to them.

“I think the most fun things in TREC involve building,” explained Zoe. “A robot can be coded for you, but dominoes are something physical. It’s a lot more fun when you can see something physical happen. You can understand how it’s working.”

Both Zoe and Jules became interested in dominoes during a TREC specialty class where they learned about the domino effect—the cumulative effect that’s produced when one event initiates a succession of similar events (such as when a line of dominoes falls). While in class each group had to build in a four-by-four square, the girls love that in Open Lab they can take their domino experimentation to new lengths … literally. “We use, like, half of the room,” laughed Jules.

And the classmates appreciate that Open Lab gives them a say in what they want to learn about and lets them work through any problems they may encounter on their own. “There’s more freedom,” said Zoe, “and when you can be creative and do whatever you want to, it’s a lot more interesting. When things don’t work, it’s not for adults to fix. It’s nice to have that time.”

Importantly, these types of experiences are open to any student on the McCarthey Campus. While the TREC specialty starts in second grade, students from 3PreK through first grade can also take part in Open Lab. Liz Ellison, one of the Beginning School’s 3PreK lead teachers, has enjoyed this new resource and said it’s super beneficial for early childhood learning.

3PreK students enjoy Open Lab hours at independent private school Rowland Hall.

3PreK students dance with a robot during Open Lab.

“Young children are so drawn to building, creating, and making, and this is open space for them to explore and start building the foundation of bigger skills,” she said.

They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders. It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.—Liz Ellison, 3PreK lead teacher

Liz has signed up her class for Open Lab slots multiple times this year and said students always look forward to walking over to the TREC Lab, where they’ve participated in a variety of activities, including mapping and setting up mazes, creating a market out of cardboard boxes, constructing ice castles with colored cups, and building with a type of block that’s not available in their own classroom. These activities are not only an age-appropriate introduction to the kind of knowledge that will support these students’ future STEM learning, but they’re also helping the students understand their capabilities.

“They’re creating that story about themselves: we are coders or creators or builders,” said Liz. “It’s ownership and positive labeling. If you tell yourself, ‘I am a mathematician or innovator,’ you become that.”

And it’s moments like this that show the magic of Open Lab—a time for pressure-free activities that quietly build students’ self-esteem.

“It’s low-stakes, high-choice exploration,” said Kaelis. “It’s a time where students can build confidence in skills they may not be as confident in, or explore without the pressure of a final outcome. They can take risks and it’s not as scary.”


Rowland Hall bids farewell to and thanks departing faculty and staff.

Kendra Tomsic, beloved and legendary director of athletics, is retiring after 32 years at Rowland Hall. It is difficult to quantify the number of student-athletes, coaches, colleagues, and families who have been impacted by Kendra during her time at the school. She’s been a coach, supervisor, and colleague, and she was the first woman in Utah history to serve as president of the Utah Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. She’s also been honored in myriad ways at regional, state, and national levels. After more than three decades at Rowland Hall, Kendra is most proud that she had the opportunity to impact young athletes. She made all who worked with her feel supported, heard, encouraged, and empowered, and we wish her all the best in her new chapter. Read Kendra’s retirement tribute.

Diane Guido, Upper School psychology teacher, is retiring after 31 years at Rowland Hall. An institution unto herself, Diane’s three sections of AP Psychology were perennially overflowing. Diane is funny, humble, demanding, a puzzle master, stylish, supportive, and truly dedicated to her students, who do exceedingly well on that AP test. To quote the College Board in 2005, “Your school has been identified as having the strongest AP Psychology course in the world among schools in your size range. No other school had a greater proportion of its student body succeed in AP Psychology.” Diane also worked with many students over the years as our school counselor before going part time a few years ago. We are grateful to have had her all these years. Read Diane’s retirement tribute.

Katie Schwab, third-grade teacher (pictured in banner), is stepping away from teaching after 23 years at Rowland Hall. Katie first taught in the Beginning School for nine years, then moved to the Lower School, where she taught second and third grade. Katie is highly respected, beloved, and admired for her commitment to and skill in supporting children in the fullness of their school experiences. She helps students grow and stretch academically, and masterfully fosters their development of social-emotional and self-regulation skills. She is a trusted guide for families, often for years after their child has been in her class, and a source of counsel and support for colleagues. The parent of two alumni (Alexa ’19 and Zach ’22) and the daughter of Susan Freed ’60, Katie’s connections to our community run deep. She will be sorely missed, and we wish her the best.

Lynelle Stoddard, 3PreK lead teacher, is retiring to care for a grandchild. For 15 years, Lynelle has been a steadfast advocate for our youngest students and their families. She’s provided a calm, caring, and developmentally appropriate curriculum and classroom environment for hundreds of littles, and walked alongside families with compassion and sage advice. Lynelle is an organized, thoughtful, and kind colleague whose conscientiousness and professionalism are admired by everyone. We are sad to see her go, but delighted for her to take on her next adventure.

Christian Waters, director of technology integration, left Rowland Hall in August to pursue a new opportunity in the Park City School District. During his 15 years of distinguished service, Christian taught students across all divisions and acted as an invaluable resource for teachers, administrators, and the Technology Department. Christian was also instrumental in helping us begin to fulfill the promise of our strategic priorities through the expansion of our programs in computer science, coding, and robotics. Thank you, Christian.

Josh Leger, technology systems administrator, left Rowland Hall in January to join Bunnell, where he’s putting his amazing technology and interpersonal skills to work. Josh joined the Technology Department two and half years ago after working for the Operations Department for 12 years in various positions, including director of transportation. Josh was a wonderful asset to the school for years and we wish him well.

Wendell Thomas, director of teaching and learning, is leaving the school to take on new challenges at Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz in Venezuela. Wendell and his family have been integral to the Rowland Hall community for the past 10 years. Under Wendell’s leadership, we’ve increased professional development opportunities; created more cross-divisional moments of learning; standardized ways of gathering and reflecting upon student data and feedback; grown teacher leadership through our accreditation process, professional development, instructional coaching, and professional learning communities; and brought in nationally known experts to speak about subjects including feedback, project-based learning, and mathematics. In addition, Wendell has helped us think about cycles of continual improvement, document curriculum, and navigate conversations with grace and positivity. Wendell has also worked with division leadership to support teachers in professional growth cycles and classroom observations, as well as improve upon our hiring practices by being more reflective. Finally, Wendell has stepped in at various times to teach science in the Upper School and TREC in the Lower School, and served as an interim department chair. We will truly miss his research-based approach to best practices and wealth of knowledge.

Mary Swaminathan, 4PreK assistant teacher, is re-retiring after nearly 10 years of service to the Beginning School. After stepping away from teaching during COVID-19, we were delighted to welcome Mary back for an encore performance alongside Isabelle Buhler. During her time at Rowland Hall, Mary has touched the lives of countless kids and families. We’ll miss her deep care, unwavering team spirit, and ever-present good humor for years to come.

Jennifer Nelson, Beginning Band teacher, is leaving Rowland Hall after nine years to spend more time with her family. Jennifer has been teaching the Middle School Beginning Band class since 2015, and in that time has introduced countless students to musical instruments, feeding their love of music and helping to build our successful middle and upper school jazz band programs.

Dani Howe, controller, left the school in December for a new opportunity after eight years of dedicated service. During her time at Rowland Hall, Dani transformed the accounting and control processes of Rowland Hall, improving our finances while working closely with faculty, staff, and students. She gave her time and expertise freely to many projects over the years, and while she is sorely missed we are very happy for the exciting opportunity she has to grow her career.

Gita Varner ’05, project coordinator for athletics, left the school in August after eight years. Gita left an incredible mark at Rowland Hall, thanks to her dedication and unwavering commitment to improving processes. Gita’s contributions enhanced the school in numerous ways, from her time in the Advancement Office to her efforts against COVID-19 to her work to improve the school’s safety protocols. While we were sad to bid her farewell, we’re excited to see Gita embark on a new chapter and comforted by the fact that she continues to help with athletic scorekeeping and stays involved in the school’s alumni events.

Wendy Butler, Lincoln Street Campus librarian, is leaving Rowland Hall after nearly six years. Wendy joined the school in fall 2018 when we lost our librarian after the year had already started. We were fortunate to find Wendy and her wealth of experience as a longtime independent school educator, department chair, and director of global programs. Wendy jumped in with both feet, immediately reorganizing, auditing, streamlining, and generally improving library collections and systems, as well as book displays, make-up testing, and shared-space systems. Wendy was eager to make the library more user-friendly, too, and integral to the redesign process that made it the most popular study and hangout space in the Upper School. Additionally, Wendy taught a variety of offerings in the History Department, most recently adding a new course, AP World History: Modern. We will miss her initiative, collaboration, strategic thinking, and care for all students.

Leslie Czerwinski, Middle School social-emotional support counselor, is leaving Rowland Hall after six years to return to private practice and focus on her family and bike team. Leslie is hardworking, even-keeled, supportive, caring, and fun, and she leads with her heart. She is a strong advocate for all students, supporting them and their families without hesitation. A motto Leslie has spread across the Middle School is: What you feed will grow. Leslie has nurtured and strengthened our community and culture and is leaving us a stronger and more inclusive space.

Collin Wolfe, McCarthey Campus PE teacher, will be relocating closer to family after six action-packed years on the beginning and lower schools’ PE faculty. Collin has made a meaningful mark on the lives of countless kids and families with his fun-loving approach and dedication to this community. In addition to his truly excellent teaching, we’ll miss his cheerful greeting at the Lower School doors each morning, colorful Color Day rotation reminders, and wicked dance moves (as seen in countless COVID-era PE videos).

Jen Bourque, fifth-grade teacher, is stepping away from Rowland Hall to focus on her growing family. Jen taught fifth grade for five years and has had an enormous impact on the curriculum and team. Apart from being an excellent teacher and colleague, Jen has led lots of important work in DEI as a consistent and committed member of the Belonging@RH group, and she launched and led SEED Seminars over the last two years for faculty at Rowland Hall, The McGillis School, and Park City Day School. We will miss Jen’s sense of humor, quick wit and insight, and extraordinary work ethic, and wish her all the best in this new chapter of her life.

Jill Gerber, seventh-grade English teacher, is leaving Rowland Hall after four years. Jill brought to the Middle School a wealth of experience, a love of learning, and a strong, student-centered vision. She is hardworking and self-motivated, especially when it comes to supporting our diverse student body and collaborating with colleagues on interdisciplinary and problem-based curricula. Jill has been on numerous faculty committees and led a variety of professional development sessions. Although her colleagues will miss her, her students are most saddened to see her leave as she is a fearless advocate for them and supports all of their endeavors in the classroom, on the volleyball court, or while playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Quincy Jackson ’16, 4PreK assistant teacher, is stepping away from teaching after this year. Quincy spent three years serving in our kindergarten and PreK programs, and also spent several years supporting Extended Day. In addition to Quincy’s many contributions in the classroom, she served for two years as the Beginning School’s divisional equity coordinator. We are grateful for her work in each of these roles and wish her the best.

Jane Singleton, Middle School academic support coordinator, is leaving Rowland Hall to embrace new adventures. Jane joined the Middle School community three years ago, transforming our learning support program and proving to be an invaluable resource to students, families, and faculty. The Middle School has benefited greatly from Jane’s organizational systems, attention to detail, and data-driven approach to supporting students. Our academic support program has not only grown in the number of students supported, but has also become more equitable, supporting all students with executive functioning and metacognition as well as teachers with differentiation. Jane will be missed.

Lexi Kemp, third-grade teacher, is leaving Rowland Hall after two years to teach middle and upper school history at Waterford. Lexi has been a warm and engaged colleague, developing strong relationships with his third graders. We wish him all the best as he shifts to teaching older students.

Nicholas Renzo, director of people operations, left the school in November to pursue new adventures. We’re thankful to Nicholas for his hard work leading our Human Resources Department and for the HR expertise he provided during his year and a half at the school. Many improvements were achieved under his leadership, including the announcement of enhanced benefits for 2024. We wish Nicholas all the best.

Beth Singleton, director of auxiliary programs, resigned in August after a year and a half at the school to relocate to the Southeast. Beth did a terrific job in her short time at Rowland Hall, inspiring and cheering on her team and working to create a vibrant and growing summer program after COVID-19. We appreciate all that she brought to the school.

Carlos Eyzaguirre, entrepreneurship teacher, is leaving Rowland Hall after a year. Carlos played a critical role in the Upper School this year, where he helped launch two new business and entrepreneurship courses. Carlos’s own experience founding start-ups and working in investment management provided invaluable experience for his students, whether they were developing their own projects or learning the basics of the business world. Carlos models intellectual curiosity, a passion for seeking out new learning opportunities, and a commitment to elevating students’ own initiatives and interests. Carlos leaves a strong foundation on which to grow the program.

Paul Hochman, media arts teacher, is leaving the school after a year. Paul had a big impact on the middle and upper schools by helping us launch a new media arts program. Paul’s experience as an educator and in journalism, as well as in his current role as president of Humongous Media, helped to shape and inspire students. Thanks to Paul, they learned the importance of storytelling through short films and their work was showcased at assemblies, the dance performance, and the band concert. We will miss Paul’s infectious enthusiasm and energy.

Sam Johnson, fifth-grade teacher, made the difficult decision to not return for the 2023–2024 school year. During her year at Rowland Hall, Sam thoughtfully contributed to the Lower School community, building strong relationships with children, families, and colleagues. We wish her the best.

Braden Morrill, director of annual giving, left Rowland Hall in July to start a new position at the Humane Society of Utah. During Braden’s year at Rowland Hall, he made great relationships with donors and volunteers and raised just over $1 million for the Annual Fund. His easygoing attitude and strong work ethic will be missed, and we wish him the best of luck on his next endeavor.

Kodie Osterberg, human resources specialist, left the school in April to pursue a new opportunity. Kodie was a valued member of the Business Office for a year, supporting our human resource functions. She was instrumental in delivering recent benefits improvements implemented for 2024 and helped us improve numerous HR processes. We wish her well in her next role.

Kristi Torsak, Middle School computer science teacher, left Rowland Hall in October after six months at the school. During her short time at Rowland Hall, Kristi positively influenced the computer science program, especially in the areas of robotics and web design, now two of our more popular elective classes. We wish her the best.

​​Cassia Peeler, Middle School French and Spanish teacher and advisor, decided to step away from teaching in December to focus on her family. We wish them all well.

Rachel Slivnick, fifth-grade teacher, stepped away from teaching in November to focus on caring for her young family at home. We wish them well.


2023 Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award winner Melanie Robbins, Rowland Hall kindergarten lead teacher

Each year at division commencement ceremonies, Rowland Hall proudly honors faculty who have demonstrated exceptional teaching and mentoring.

The Sumner/Larsen Excellence in Teaching Faculty Awards

The Sumner/Larsen Excellence in Teaching Faculty Awards are given each year to outstanding faculty members in each division who have demonstrated a love for teaching and excellence in their fields. This award was established in 1985 by Kit Sumner and family, who have shown an unparalleled commitment to Rowland Hall for three generations. In 2022, Kurt Larsen, who shares the Sumners’ high regard for Rowland Hall’s faculty and dedication to the school, joined Kit Sumner in funding this award to increase its impact. The renamed Sumner/Larsen Excellence in Teaching Faculty Award is one of the highest recognitions of excellence in teaching at Rowland Hall.

Congratulations to the following recipients.

Beginning School: Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten lead teacher

Rowland Hall lead kindergarten teacher Bethany Stephensen.

Bethany Stephensen is a steadfast advocate for young children and for those who care for them. She is admired by her colleagues for her calm and centered approach with her students, even in the moments of relative chaos that are so common in the Beginning School. She is a trusted resource for families and a source of support and encouragement for colleagues. She is an innovator grounded in a rich understanding of what’s best for young learners, who has quietly and thoughtfully encouraged her team to make impactful changes to their grade level’s curriculum over the last few years. She is a deeply kind-hearted and compassionate human, who carries her students and their families in her heart, often with lightness, sometimes with heaviness, and always with love, for years beyond their time with her. Bethany can be counted on to share her valuable wisdom and insights with colleagues, often a day or two after the conversation because she’s been thoughtfully processing the discussion. She is a transformer of classroom spaces, an inspirer of rich dramatic play, a lifelong dancer and dance educator, and an unabashed Spice Girls fan.

Lower School: Jodi Spiro, third-grade teacher

Rowland Hall third-grade teacher Jodi Spiro.

Jodi Spiro has a talent for both teaching and for savoring life. She finds humor around most every corner and delights in the range of diverse personalities and quirks of her students. She seeks out adventure and growth both at school and in her life outside of school, demonstrating openness and eagerness for whatever may come her way. Jodi shows up with an authentic commitment to supporting students in their slightly weird projects or off-kilter ideas for writing original books, creating wacky showcase performances, and initiating change in our school community. She is a colleague who can be counted on to cheer you up or cheer you on when you need it, and who chips in to do important and hard work along with the fun stuff. And while Jodi may be famous for her deep understanding of and skill in teaching mathematics, it is her skill in helping kids and parents better understand themselves and each other that is so impactful. Jodi has changed a lot of lives for the better in her time at Rowland Hall, helping kids and families step through the many transitions in elementary school.

Middle School: Sara Donnelly, eighth-grade science teacher

Rowland Hall eighth-grade science teacher Sara Donnelly.

Sara Donnelly builds relationships with students in quiet and understated ways—knowing their strengths, growth edges, and interests—and fosters an environment where everyone feels valued and confident in their abilities. She is creative in her lesson design, balancing skill building and content knowledge with engaging, hands-on activities. She collaborates on a myriad of interdisciplinary projects and, on a departmental level, pushes for a culture of creative exploration and adopts a claim, evidence, and reasoning model for how to think and write scientifically. She looks for opportunities to support students and connect outside the classroom. And in her six years at Rowland Hall, Sara has continually transformed and refreshed the eighth-grade science curriculum, never taking what was done before and settling. From dissections to mirror mazes to the multitude of engineering and design projects, Sara constantly takes feedback from students, and the latest research on best teaching practices, to create an optimal learning environment that is engaging, challenging, and positive.

Upper School: Lynn Oliva, Spanish teacher

Rowland Hall Upper School Spanish teacher Lynn Oliva.

Lynn Oliva embodies this year’s theme, Learn for Life, in all aspects. She is relentlessly curious, always eager to take on a new professional learning experience, volunteer for a committee, engage in dialogue about teaching and learning, share her space, or show up in support of students and colleagues. She is described by students and advisees as kind, caring, patient, bubbly, committed, energetic, fair, understanding, approachable, and thoughtful. There are always students in her classroom, regardless of whether it is class time or not. Lynn looks to improve her craft and has taken special care to find coursework that better supports students with diverse learning needs, as well as to improve her own knowledge of and experience with her subject. In the past year alone, Lynn participated in Leadership and Design’s Culture Lab, volunteered for multiple committees, learned French for last year’s Interim, went to Gibraltar to get documents in support of her petition for Spanish citizenship, helped design and lead the fiber arts Interim, been lead advisor for the 11th grade, and advised several seniors. This is all in addition to working tirelessly in the classroom to create a spark for each and every student to learn and speak Spanish.

Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award 2024

The Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award is presented to Rowland Hall faculty members who demonstrate excellence in teaching, serve as mentors to others, and contribute to the Rowland Hall community. This award was established through an anonymous gift to the school in honor of Mr. Jones’ dedication to the faculty when he was the chair of the Board of Trustees.

This year’s Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award has been awarded to Tiya Karaus, second-grade teacher.

Rowland Hall second-grade teacher Tiya Karaus.

Tiya Karaus has an easy laugh and a gift for deep insight, and uses both to inspire students and colleagues. She demonstrates tenacity and stamina each school year, creatively solving (and re-solving) tricky problems in the classroom. She models persistence for colleagues, inspiring them to keep at it even when they feel tired or discouraged. In only a handful of years, Tiya has served the school in many ways, including contributing thoughtful insights to complex hiring processes. Colleagues report learning a great deal from her, and she can be counted on to interrogate her own assumptions and gracefully ask questions to move thinking forward. Kiya places a high value on creating a positive, empowering learning environment for students. A deeply dedicated teacher, she helps students see how much they are capable of. When helping students solve social problems, she masterfully supports their autonomy and dignity by coaching them to advocate for themselves, set boundaries, and express their feelings honestly and respectfully. This year, Kiya stepped into an unofficial leadership role, thoughtfully providing both structure and connection time for her grade-level team and acting as an effective advocate for their needs. She can always be counted on to step in and offer a helping hand, and can often be found walking fairly quickly from here to there to check in with folks, offer a listening ear, or just help make copies.


At Rowland Hall's Beginning School, tree climbing is encouraged for its various benefits for early learners.

For beginning schoolers, a tree is never just a tree. It’s a mountain to be scaled. A secret hideaway. A new perspective on the world.

Beyond a childhood pastime, though, tree climbing is a uniquely valuable tool to support child development, and research shows that this one activity provides numerous benefits.

“There are important learning outcomes that come with climbing trees that kids need to learn and practice,” said Brittney Hansen, Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal. In fact, these benefits are so wide-reaching that all Beginning School teachers are asked to encourage the activity.

Below, we dive into just some of these benefits to learn why tree climbing is not only an early childhood best practice, but an enduring and beloved part of the Beginning School experience.

Tree climbing helps early learners develop risk tolerance and risk management.

We live in a culture that’s overwhelmingly risk-averse, but you don’t have to search far to learn that all this caution isn’t good for children, who need risky play in their development.

The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations.—Bethany Stephensen, kindergarten lead teacher

“Risky play is anything that lets kids test their own limits and ability,” explained kindergarten lead teacher Bethany Stephensen, whether that’s running fast down a hill or climbing a tree. This type of play is necessary because it allows children to feel ownership over their play. Think of risky play like a muscle flex: each opportunity to practice assessing the safety of a situation (and tackling a right-size challenge) strengthens a child’s risk-tolerance and risk-management skills. The more of these opportunities a child gets, the stronger their ability to approach and manage risky situations. But teachers are clear that risky play has to be in students’ hands. Though tree climbing is encouraged at Rowland Hall, children need to be able to get themselves into the trees—it’s a sign they’re ready for the challenge.

“The key is that kids have to do it entirely by themselves,” said 3PreK lead teacher Liz Ellison, whose students use everything from nearby logs to their upper body strength to hoist themselves onto branches. “If you lift them in, they might not be developmentally ready. They have to experience that feeling in their body to climb, to know their body can handle it.”

Students also build their risk-assessment capabilities by only climbing to a point where they still feel confident in their ability to get back down on their own.

“The thing about risky play is it gives children chances to tune into their own bodies and find what they're comfortable with, to make a plan and follow up with it—all skills they need in real dangerous situations,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing builds young learners’ confidence.

I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, “I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it.”—Ella Slaker, 4PreK lead teacher

Because tree climbing isn’t easy for many students, taking part in, then mastering, the activity can be a great way to build self-confidence.

“I find that the biggest development piece they are getting is confidence—trying something hard and problem solving and knowing, ‘I might not be able to do this yet, but I will do it,’” said 4PreK lead teacher Ella Slaker. And this confidence is built at every step, from figuring out a way to climb onto a limb to problem solving within a tree’s branches to observing their physical and mental progress.

“It’s all about knowing your own limit and trusting your own body. You feel the limit, push past it, and conquer it,” said Bethany.  “It builds so much self-trust.”

Additionally, tree climbing can also be a great way for students to learn to self-regulate, further building their self-esteem. “For kids who need more regulation, climbing trees is putting energy to good use,” said Ella. “They can sit up in a tree, regulate, and come down when they’re ready.”

Tree climbing develops gross motor skills, strength, and spatial awareness.

It’s probably no surprise to learn that tree climbing has a variety of benefits related to young children’s endurance and strength. Climbing a tree sharpens gross motor skills (those full-body movements that involve the large muscles in the legs, arms, and torso), while honing eye-hand coordination and balance, and even building flexibility.

Tree climbing builds social skills in early learners.

The activity also builds students’ spatial awareness, or proprioception. “Proprioception is awareness of where the body is in space and in relation to what's around it, like things and people,” said Liz. “Climbing trees requires proprioception and also further enhances its development, and developing proprioception is important for young children because they can understand where their body is in space, what's around their body, and how they can move through their environment. They know how much force they need to execute a movement.”

Tree climbing provides social benefits.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers.

In the Beginning School, tree climbing isn’t a solo endeavor, and navigating the branches of a tree provides early learners with new opportunities to practice taking turns, sharing space, and playing side by side. And even when students aren’t ready to climb a tree themselves, many are naturally drawn to classmates who are up in branches. These peers provide great support once a student is ready for their first ascent.

“Some students climb right away, then become a coach to others asking, ‘How did you get up there?’” said Ella. It’s not uncommon to hear a preschooler calling out to a classmate, “Put your leg on this branch,” or to hear a group encouraging a more timid climber.

“They cheer each other on and celebrate each other,” said Liz. And this kind of prosocial behavior—behavior that’s intended to benefit others—helps to build empathy, a sense of community and belonging, and positive relationships among the students. It also allows students to see themselves as problem solvers, an identity the teachers readily encourage.

“If someone panics or is frustrated, instead of a teacher running over, we call on a fellow climber to give advice,” said Bethany.

Tree climbing develops early environmental stewards.

An unexpected, but no less important, benefit of tree climbing is its ability to inspire young environmental stewards. At Rowland Hall, an emphasis on outdoor education and direct access to nature is woven into all levels of the Beginning School, and a yearlong tree study is even a hallmark of the kindergarten experience.

“Outdoor learning is a huge part of kindergarten,” said Bethany, and a chance for students to learn from nature, not just about nature. The tree study encompasses a variety of activities, including reading to the trees, measuring distance between them, and gathering their leaves, pine needles, and cones to use in science studies. So it feels natural to these students when they’re asked to not only consider their own safety when climbing, but to keep in mind the safety and the well-being of the trees.

“Learning all about trees makes them care about them, and builds familiarity,” said Bethany. “The hope is that they fall in love with nature and these trees, building their instinctual empathy.”

Rowland Hall students climb a favorite tree in Salt Lake City's Sunnyside Park.

The beginning schooler-named Gumdrop Tree at Sunnyside Park is a student favorite.

Tips for Families

Want to encourage tree climbing outside of school? Consider the following teacher tips for supporting your young climber.

  • Let them climb. While Rowland Hall’s Beginning School teachers completely understand adult worries around tree climbing, they’re clear that the benefits of the activity far outweigh the risks.
  • Set limits. Even though tree climbing is a type of risky play, you can set limits to make it safer. For example, teachers tell students to only climb over soft surfaces, stay aware of their surroundings, make a climbing plan, climb only as high as they’re comfortable, climb only if they can see an adult (and the adult can see them), and give space to other climbers.
  • Let your child get themselves into the tree. It’s tempting to give a child a boost, but remember: a child’s ability to climb into a tree, whether that’s by using a natural prop or their own body, is an indication that they’re developmentally ready to climb. Never lift a child into a tree. Instead, follow their lead—they’ll climb when they're ready.
  • Keep yourself in check. Many adults find themselves calling out, “Be careful!” during risky play without thinking about it, but that sends the message that you don’t trust your child. If you’ve assessed the climbing area and given permission to your child, allow yourself to trust in the process. If it helps, try describing what you see your child doing to calm yourself (“Wow! You are very high up on that branch”). And if your child expresses worry about climbing down, be sure to convey your confidence in their ability, assuring them that because their body climbed up, it can climb down too.
  • Learn more about risky play. There are lots of great resources about risky play activities. The teachers recommend Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (as well as the article “Let them climb trees,” which features the author), and Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children.

Outdoor Learning

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