It was still cold and wet outside from recent rainfall when the five students of Sweet Tomatoes Learning Center in Chehalis prepared for their daily morning nature walk on Wednesday, Dec. 6, but that didn’t stop them from rushing out onto the center’s forest trail with their clipboards and sample bags.
With gentle warnings to be careful in the mud, Sweet Tomatoes Executive Director Kathleen Reed encouraged them to explore to their hearts’ content.
“We get a little dirty. We have a lot of fun,” Reed said on the trail with a Chronicle reporter Wednesday morning.
Sweet Tomatoes Learning Center is a recently-established private school for kids ages 4 to 10 focused on nature-based learning and exploration, with the goal of helping kids learn through play, inquiry, and connection with nature.
“Even the skill of handwriting is improved by moving around outside, so we do a lot of movement, we do a lot of looking for things,” Reed said.
Reed started Sweet Tomatoes with help from her husband, Tom Reed, earlier this year. With teaching credentials in multiple states and endorsements in early childhood education, elementary education, seventh-12th grade social studies and language arts, and gifted education, Reed’s motivation for opening Sweet Tomatoes came largely from her experience homeschooling her own special-needs child and working as the gifted education specialist for the Florida Department of Education, she said.
“I went around to a lot of the schools (in Florida) and I kept seeing gifted programs where kids were lined up in desks, having to do a lot of standardized work,” Reed said, adding that she wanted to introduce more hands-on, movement-based learning to those types of programs. “It’s so important for them to be outside and not just stuck inside, and then also they can use their bodies in ways that (are) more age-appropriate than sitting. So they can go outside. They can explore. They can talk to each other in more natural ways than when you’re set up in a classroom with a scripted curriculum.”
Currently, the five-person Sweet Tomatoes class has one nature walk in the morning and one in the afternoon, with indoor learning in between.
In addition to reading, math and other core subjects, indoor learning includes looking up information about what they saw on their nature hikes, diagramming parts of plants, or working to identify various things they found outside.
Kids also get chances throughout the session to interact and care for the horses, goats and other animals that live on the property.
When asked their favorite parts of the program on Wednesday, most of the kids said they enjoyed being outside and interacting with nature. Four-year-old Maya said she liked playing in the sandbox, and 10-year-old Lyla said she was having fun learning math.
“I like to do the algebra a lot … I think math is awesome,” she said.
Sweet Tomatoes had its first open house on June 17. Its first 10-week session began in September. A special four-week session began in late November, and the next 10-week session begins in January.
“That’ll be set up as six weeks, and then a two week break, and then four weeks,” Reed said of the upcoming 10-week session.
Class sizes are kept intentionally small so each child can have significant one-on-one support, Reed said, but the class makeup changes with each new session.
“Different kids can sign up for different things, so that way it’s not just ‘you have to sign up at the beginning of the year.’ That way, more people in the community have access,” Reed said.
Sweet Tomatoes also offers part-day and full day enrichment programs for students ages 4-10 years and a three-day a week homeschool program.
For more information or to enroll in an upcoming session, visit https://sweettomatoeslc.weebly.com/.