Cyleigh Colfack, artist extraordinaire, was hard at work on a sunny afternoon this week, turning a glass “canvas” into a dizzying work of purples and blues that would put Jackson Pollock to shame.

Actually, she painted a "C" at first. Then her efforts morphed into something more akin to the abstract expressionist she’s most likely never heard of in her five years of life.

That doesn’t matter of course — it’s the doing that counts, as with her preschool classmates using strips of wood taller than they are to build a house, or maybe the frame of a teepee; and those sending a ball down the long course they’ve created with PVC pipe.

Cyleigh and her classmates are part of something larger than their creations, though they may not know much about this work their principal has done for them.

That doesn’t matter either, because Jeremy Ekeler sees the bigger picture.

“The idea is to get kids outside every single day to play,” he said. “So much of our early childhood is not about the cure, it’s about the approach: How to learn. What does it mean to be curious and learn.”

When he took over as principal of Cathedral of the Risen Christ in 2014, he wanted to expand the preschool, creating a program geared toward the whole child, a program that would address their spiritual needs, their academic growth and give them ample time to run and jump and play.

The running and jumping and playing serves a number of purposes, he said, helping them to appreciate nature, nuture their creativity and problem-solving skills, and getting them away from computer and television screens.

Expanding the school’s early childhood program also serves a couple of other purposes, Ekeler said: promoting their parochial school and expanding enrollment, and increasing the early childhood education options in Lincoln. The preschool program is open to children who won’t attend Cathedral, 3245 S. 37th St.

Ekeler, who is working with Prosper Lincoln’s initiative to promote and expand early childhood education, said the solution to increasing quality child care is creating partnerships with businesses and churches to offer early childhood education across town.

Michelle Suarez, who leads the early childhood education initiative for Prosper Lincoln, said the availability of early child care has decreased from 20,130 spots in licensed centers, preschool and home care in 2012 to 19,719 last year.

The work Ekeler is doing is a model of what the community can accomplish, she said. 

Convinced by studies that show the benefits of outdoor play, Ekeler began the process of creating a certified Nature Explore classroom through the Nature Explore program, a collaboration of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation.

He got several local businesses on board to help and turned what was essentially a “gravel pit” at the school into an outdoor classroom for preschoolers. This fall the outdoor classroom became the 400th certified nature classroom in the country.

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There are several different stations where children can play: a stage with a marimba and xylophone and a rod on which to hang a curtain, if one isn’t wearing it as a cape; a “balance area” with a beam to walk on; an herb garden with all the necessary spices to make a pizza; a sand box; a digging area; an art area; and, when it’s warm, a water area.

Teachers watch the kids and create lessons based on what they see, which is why the nature classroom is now flanked by several slowly rotting pumpkins.

Seems the kids read a book about pumpkins and wondered what happened to them after they’d been carved into jack o’lanterns, so they set them outside to see.

Since Ekeler revamped the preschool — creating a half-day program three times a week for the "Eaglets" from ages 3 to 5 — enrollment has increased from 30 last year to 48 this year. He hopes to increase enrollment to 60 next year, he said.

None of which concerned Olivia Nguyen, who was busy in the sand lot this week, stirring something in a pail.

A word to the wise: Don’t be fooled by the cuteness as she offers you a sample of the sand-like concoction, because she knows what’s really going on, no matter what the principal might be going on about. 

“We’re evil witches,” she said, all smiles and sweetness on a sunny fall day.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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