Down a short, winding path from a parking lot off Mamaroneck Road in Scarsdale lies a haven from what we consider the real world. Teepees, a greenhouse, hiking trails, a woodlands area, a snack and fire circle, and a building with nature classrooms featuring wildlife of all kinds are a nature lover’s dream. And for parents during a pandemic, it’s a safe environment for their preschoolers to gather, play and learn.

The Weinberg Nature Center, under the auspices of Scarsdale’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, and further supported by Friends of the Weinberg Nature Center, started a three-morning-per-week forest school program for preschoolers that is one of the many ways part-time naturalist Sam Weinstock, who was hired in December 2018, has breathed new life, relevance and profit into the center.

Weinstock told the Inquirer in January 2019 that he viewed the center as “a blank canvas” in which he was charged with both moving forward and continuing “past traditions.” His goal was to encourage all ages to find something meaningful at WNC.

Weinberg’s forest school grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when many parents were hesitant to send their kids back indoors with other people. Weinstock said the center as a whole is “more utilized now” with the forest school in the mornings and also with after-school programs.

“The trend of the forest preschool has been certainly evolving in Westchester County with Rye Nature Center, Greenburgh, some forest schools in Connecticut and it’s been gaining some momentum,” Weinstock said. “It seems to be the bread earner for all the nature centers for sure. In COVID-19 most certainly parents were very reticent about sending their children into a closed room, concerned about ventilation. That’s when we developed a pilot, a nature-learning pod, which has evolved into this program. Absolutely, we caught that bandwagon.”

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Sam Weinstock with Buffy, a panda bear hamster.

The forest school runs as a cooperative with parent/caregiver volunteers helping out Weinstock and naturalist Julia King each day to ensure everyone’s safety and to assist the two teachers. “The parent cooperative helps link the home environment with the nature center, so that type of learning is essential,” Weinstock said.

Forest schools are based on a model developed in Wisconsin by Wakelin McNeel and H.L. Rusell in 1927. Europe, including many cold weather countries, adapted it in the 1950s and pioneered the modern version, which makes it perfect for year-round outdoor Zen.

In general, the recreation department’s outdoor programs — even off-season ones like football and soccer in the winter — saw an influx of interest because outdoors has been deemed safer against the spread of COVID-19. Scarsdale rec superintendent Brian Gray’s message has been, “Bundle up, get outside.”

“We saw more and more people being outside and the forest school fell right in line with what we’re trying to do out there,” Gray said. “Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time outside. In this day and age you can find the right gear, the appropriate clothing and have a good experience outside.”

WNC’s forest school for potty-trained kids ages 3.25 to 5 is broken up into fall (9:15 a.m. to noon), winter (9:45 a.m. to noon) and spring (9:15 a.m. to noon) sessions, and there is also a forest camp in the summer. The fall session wraps up Dec. 10, with the winter beginning Jan. 3 and running through March 4 before another short break prior to the March 10-June 10 spring session. The fall and spring, each 34 classes, costs $2,000; the winter, with 21 classes, is $1,000.

“It’s wonderful to see these children outdoors developing confidence while they’re walking from A to B on a trail,” Weinstock said. “It’s amazing how much there is a transition from the world of movie super heroes and playing with toys to nature … Part of the forest school model is having the educators a little hands-off, taking them in the woods, allowing them to just kind of freely explore. There’s certainly a lot of safety elements and coaching that has to coincide with all that, for sure. These guys right now, they know where they are and they’re not afraid to ask questions.”

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Time to learn about and pet the animals is built into the forest school daily routine.

Last school year the forest school was 100% outdoors. This year if it’s raining they will break into smaller groups and use the animal and crafts classrooms indoors. While most of the fall was held outdoors, the goal this winter, which will feature a half hour shorter program, will be 50% indoors, 50% outdoors.

“We’ll be making fires, we’ll be taking them to the greenhouse, where it’s a little warmer, and we’ll be making ice lanterns and taking walks,’ Weinstock said. “The parents are very conscientious about having them wear layers and we’ll be doing all of this.”

An informal straw poll found that half the kids’ favorite forest school activity is roasting marshmallows, though others also like snack time, hiking, reading books and winter activities.

On a daily basis, outdoor life skills and building healthy habits are plentiful, as are experiences with the dozens of animals housed at the nature center. On Thursday, Nov. 18, Weinstock taught the kids the Lenape word for “being thankful,” which is “wanishi,” worked on chalk literacy on the paved pathway, did child yoga, storytelling in the teepee village, some guessing games, a hike, circle time, playing in the woodland forest, reading and other activities. Throughout there are letters and numbers and colors and facts sprinkled into each part of the day.

“This is a great group,” Weinstock said. “In the first weeks they were so shy and they’re now more comfortable. It’s place-based education, so they’re getting confident moving within five different learning sites at the Weinberg Nature Center. That type of place-based education is conducive to developing better social skills and exploring and naming the world they’re discovering.”

The children introduced Buffy, a panda bear hamster, into a teepee they built to see what would happen. One child exclaimed — seven times — “She likes it!”

“This animal is finding shelter in here,” Weinstock told the kids. “Let’s calm down. We don’t want to scare the animal. What color is Buffy? Black and white. And how many legs does he have? He has four legs. He’s hiding in there. Can you see him? He didn’t eat the food. He put it in his pockets. He has pockets in his cheeks. The food stays dry in there. It’s not filled with saliva. Why is that important? Because this animal, when it’s preparing to take its winter nap, it will put all of that food in its hole underground and if it’s dry it won’t get moldy, it won’t get yucky. It will stay good for a couple of months.”

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Story time is a key part of the day for any preschooler.

While reading “If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t!” by Elise Parsley, Weinstock taught the kids the differences between alligators and crocodiles. They have different snouts, live in different places — Florida and Australia, respectively — and alligators like fresh water, crocodiles fresh and salt water. He also talked about animal teeth.

“If you’re an animal, it doesn’t matter how sharp your teeth are, it matters how strong your jaw is,” Weinstock said. “If a dog has a strong jaw, then it can bite into a lot of things. But if you’re a chinchilla with teeth sharper than a shark’s, they have very weak jaws, so they can’t really bite down that well.”

As an educator — he has a degree and certifications in education, as well as philosophy, international education and anthropology — Weinstock is cognizant that every child is different and they are all at different places in their development. He is developing some literacy boosters for nonclass days because when the children are together he wants them to focus on play, with learning sprinkled in.

“Literacy boosters would be one-on-one and small group time for the children to really hone in on where they’re at and give them more of a comfort zone,” he said. “We might have a child who is dyslexic or we might have a child who can read amazingly well for his or her age, so we want them all on two strong feet.”

Weinstock played college baseball for a short time for Hampshire College in Massachusetts before getting “back to the books.” When he was an upperclassman he convinced the faculty to let him go to Australia to teach at an Aboriginal bush school for a year. He completed his thesis on experiential education with an indigenous perspective on teaching. He called it “a very formative time” in his education that would later impact his career. Weinstock also has experience with special needs children — he runs a therapeutic recreation program in another town — and last year the forest school had an autistic student who was “beloved by the group.”

C.J. Nuess of Larchmont enrolled his 3.5-year-old older daughter in the forest school this fall for the first time and it’s exactly what he and his wife, 2004 Scarsdale High School graduate Bridget O’Connor, had hoped for. They didn’t want her in a classroom setting just yet because “she’s going to be doing that for the next forever and especially with COVID,” Nuess said.

Nuess is from Eastern Washington State, so this program is more in tune with the way he was raised. “We want her to experience this,” he said. “She comes home and we look for salamanders in our yard now. She can spot different leaves. She’s been noticing everything. They get out and they explore… She used to never go on hikes. We’d have to walk with her, hold her the whole time and now she’s leading the hikes on the Leatherstocking Trail, which is fun.”

Lauren Bokmeyer’s 4-year-old daughter is in the forest school for the first time also. For her it’s worth the drive from Greenwich, Connecticut.

“We didn’t do anything last year and so I figured rather than sending her to kindergarten with no other school experience that this would be a good way to get her to hang out with other kids in a relatively safe environment and she’s going to be in the classroom the rest of her life,” Bokmeyer said. “It was a great way to get her out and let her play and do all these things she wouldn’t get to do if she went right to school.”

Bokmeyer has also seen her daughter’s confidence grow when it comes to running, jumping and climbing in nature. “She used to be timid when she saw animals or bugs outside and now she’s telling me what things are like ashfall seeds that turn into acorns,” she said. “That is really cool because they just don’t do that in a traditional elementary school.”

Weinstock’s energy, enthusiasm and excitement make the experience even better.

“He seems truly passionate about all the things they’re doing and the animals and the recap he gives at the end of the day is so appreciated,” Bokmeyer said.

A little history

The 7.7-acre property that the Weinberg Nature Center occupies near the Scarsdale Municipal Pool, Saxon Woods Golf Course, Saxon Woods and the Hutchinson River Parkway, has a long history over the last century, beginning with Jacob Hilder building a house there in the 1920s. In 1945 Wilhelm Weinberg, a Dutch banker, financier, investor and an art collector, bought the house after his wife and three children died in the Holocaust. He never lived in the nature center house — he resided at 22 Rectory Lane until his death in 1957 — but he donated the property to the village. In 1961, the village leased the property to the Scarsdale Audubon Society with the purpose of turning it into a nature center. The property eventually reverted back to the village in the 1970s.

Gray said the nature center currently has two part-time employees, an animal rehabilitator and a naturalist. Weinstock was brought in to take something that was “stale” and “spice that facility up,” according to Gray.

“We charged him with trying to come up with new ideas and new programming,” Gray said. “He has done just that and he has actually exceeded our expectations, which we are very happy about.”

Gray said one of the department’s goals is to get Weinstock on board full time. Scarsdale hasn’t had a full-time naturalist since Walter Terrell, who served in that role from 1986-2010. In 2010, that position was eliminated by then-Village Manager Al Gatta due to budgetary issues and declining revenue to support the program. Gatta said at the time that the village had other more pressing priorities in a year where taxes were already proposed to increase 5.9%. (A handful of other positions were also eliminated throughout the village.)

With the center’s budget cut in half, it needed a new model for it to survive. For the past decade-plus, the center has relied on part-time employees, but until now hasn’t seen such a revival in community interest and participation.

Under Terrell there were three main part-time staffers, who, like Weinstock now, had to work at other centers to fully make a living. Cindy Polera was among that group and Weinstock succeeded her. When his position was being eliminated, Terrell said that part-timers go where the work is, and the higher pay, no matter how much they love where they are and that, “If you want professional staff, you have to pay professional salaries.” It looks like Scarsdale is once again getting ready to do just that with Weinstock.

“Understanding what he can produce and what he has produced, he’s proven himself out there,” Gray said. “His programming ideas fall in line with what our vision is and that’s what we’re looking to continue to do and operate that facility as less of an expense and make it more of a revenue stream for us.”

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Dale Haas was hired by the recreation department in March with a primary focus on running the summer camp program and she had Weinstock work with the campers as often as she could last summer, which wasn’t easy as he had so many of his own popular programs to tend to. Despite not working directly with Weinstock, Haas knew how valuable he was to the program. Last week she had a chance to spend an entire morning with the forest school and was blown away.

“It’s my first time working hands-on with Sam,” Haas said. “He’s so brilliant and goofy and just in it. That’s such an amazing quality. He’s always on, no matter what’s going on. I admire that.”

At this point, Weinberg is Weinstock, or perhaps the other way around. “He’s got his own following,” Gray said, adding that between his personality and energy, “He’s like the Pied Piper of the nature center, exactly what we need out there… You walk out there and there’s Sam with two birds on his head or walking around with a snake around his neck.”

Pleading their case

Three residents spoke to the Scarsdale Village Board of Trustees earlier this month advocating for Weinstock to become a full-time employee.

Brian and Eugenie Rosenthal, who enrolled their daughter in the forest school, were among them. “We felt safe, because it was the beginning of COVID, so it met an extremely important need because people hadn't been vaccinated,” Brian Rosenthal said. “And at the same time, it was a great community. It opened her imagination. It was run creatively. She spent a lot of time learning about animals and nature.”

He said there were two notable things that came out of the experience. The first was the importance of the center as an asset to the community, the second was how “amazing,” “inspiring” and “creative” Weinstock is with his “magnetic personality.”

Rosenthal, who is on the Friends board, noted that the center’s revenue has doubled by starting and continuing the forest school.

“The work that he did was so important because many businesses struggled over the last year, two years, but the Weinberg Nature Center thrived because of Sam ...,” he said, adding that he thinks a really strong director such as Weinstock could be a hot commodity for another center in such a competitive environment.

Rosenthal also takes his Cub Scouts to the facility, which hosts an array of seasonal community events throughout the year including the Scarecrow Festival, cider making and s’mores.

“It's a community center,” he said. “It's also a really important community resource at a time when our kids just are using too many screens and the iPhones and it gets people outside and interacting with the real world of nature.”

Eugenie Rosenthal called the center “a critical respite from the screen-based culture” that “dominates our lifestyle” — children and adults — and it serves to repair “our mental and spiritual health.”

Seeing the forest school at capacity, which is just north of a dozen preschoolers each session, is more proof of the center’s success under Weinstock. The various after-school programs also fill up quickly.

“I was impressed at how many of the kids in the forest preschool are from families that very recently moved from the city and at least two of the parents told me that they had tried to get their kids into the Central Park Forest School and there’s a waitlist that’s years long, and that programs like this are one of the reasons that they moved here,” Eugenie Rosenthal said. “There are kids who are commuting every day to the preschool from as far as Briarcliff Manor and Yonkers. So I think this could be a real jewel.”

She remembers the center as “backwater and dilapidated” when she was growing up in Scarsdale. Now it has “radiant energy and vitality.” In order for that to continue, the village, she said, should be “investing in Sam.”

Janice Montefiore added, “What [Sam has] given to the nature center and to my family and the community as a whole is overwhelmingly impactful.”

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