Teaching Young Children Among the Trees NLU alum instructs Washington preschoolers in fully outdoor classroom

Teaching students indoors, teaching students outdoors — as long as it’s early childhood education, Judy Derpack ’96 is in her happy place.

For Derpack, it all started inside a National Louis University (NLU) classroom on a campus near her hometown of Naperville, Ill. NLU fit her passions perfectly.

“The school’s philosophy best matched mine. I really wanted an early childhood degree rather than the elementary education degrees at other universities,” she explained.

While the University has reorganized its campus offerings since Derpack received her B.A. in Early Childhood Education, what hasn’t changed is the quality of NLU’s faculty.

“I continue to reference their work every day!” asserted Derpack about her course instructors.

After Derpack made a move to the Seattle area in the late 90s, she built a 13-year career in Washington’s unique state-funded parent cooperative preschool program. Local community colleges run the preschools and provide educational opportunities to both the children and their parents.

“[Parents] worked and played in the lab/classroom once a week, filled a committee or board position, cleaned the preschool, and attended once a month parent education meetings with renown speakers about discipline, personality styles, birth order, literacy and other parenting issues,” Derpack explained.

Mountain Sprouts Children’s Community students during class.

Derpack later moved east of Seattle, to a town called Leavenworth in the Cascade Mountains. Twelve or so months in, she received an invitation to sit on the board of Mountain Sprouts Children’s Community, a nonprofit that provides traditional summer camps as well as daycare and half-day preschool outside among nature.

Derpack was part of the momentum for that nonprofit to launch a full-time preschool program, in which she now teaches.

Students in the Mountain Sprouts Children’s Community full-time preschool program spend the majority of their class time in the wilderness near the banks of the Wenatchee River. The only lessons conducted indoors are art and music.

“Together, teachers and children collaborate to build a curriculum that is centered around the Earth, it’s elements, it’s inhabitants, and our role and relationship with it. With environmental literacy and outdoor opportunities at the heart of our mission, we encourage inquiry, curiosity, and the care for our space and each other,” said Derpack of this unique program.

Mountain Sprouts Children’s Community students investigate some leaves.

Derpack attributes her teaching perspective and unwavering passion for education to her time at NLU.

“My NLU education completely and utterly changed every cell of my brain, to realize the excitement and pure joy of working with young children. It informed every year I taught and parented. It continues to inform every moment with my grandchildren and their friends,” she explained.