Debbie Ellman started Sunflower Preschool in a basement in south Boulder 40 years ago, with daughter Marisa Ellman taking over as owner, operator and teacher after her mother retired five years ago.

The Montessori science- and nature-based preschool closed last school year during the pandemic, reopening in June. Five staff members now are working with 20 students, ages 2 1/2 to 6, in mixed age groups.

Iris tosses up leaves at Sunflower Preschool on Friday. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Marisa Ellman said she kept enrollment lower this year — the preschool is licensed for up to 30 students — to allow for more distancing and more personal attention as students start or reenter school after a year of isolation.

While the school already had outdoor classrooms and outdoor curriculum, she said, students now spend even more time outdoors. Until the mornings recently got chilly, she said, students were only inside for rest time — and are still outside about six hours a day. The school also added HEPA filters and, as required by Boulder County, uses indoor mask-wearing and morning health checks as additional safety measures.

Still, she decided to close Sunflower last school year because of the challenges of operating during a pandemic and the health concerns of her staff. Two of the school’s teachers have worked there for more than 20 years, and turnover is low.

“It was a hard decision, but I didn’t want to try to run a preschool during a pandemic with new teachers,” she said, adding all the school’s teachers returned in June. “I feel very thankful to have such a dedicated teaching team.”

Tatum plays on the rings at Sunflower Preschool on Friday. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Sunflower Mars, one of the teachers who started at the preschool more than 20 years ago, said she found a private teaching gig during the closure working with just three students — and making more money — but still returned.

“It has been in my life for 20 years,” she said. “I couldn’t see it go down after COVID. I just really wanted to see it flourish. I was happy to help the Sunflower legacy continue.”

She picked Sunflower for a school-required internship out of the phone book, saying she noticed the school because its name matched hers. The preschool was also close to where she lived and when she visited students were studying Mars as the planet of the week.

“I said I guess I’m meant to be there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to work. We have such a close team. It’s our little Sunflower family. Working with young children, it really helps keep you present. That’s one of the benefits, that I love what I do.”

Marisa Ellman attended Sunflower herself as a child and taught there as a teen and in the summers while home from college, then went on to work for nonprofit organizations. She returned to Sunflower as a teacher in 2014.

“Things came full circle,” she said. “What I wanted to do was there all along.”

Maxine peeks through the kitty hole on Friday at Sunflower Preschool. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

In its 40 years, Ellman said, the school’s curriculum and emphasis on nature and science have evolved. The school continues to follow three tenets of Montessori education: mixed age groups, team teaching and child-directed learning.

The Ellmans over the years added to the outdoor space, which now includes an outdoor theater, mud kitchen, nature art area and reflexology path, and added outdoor curriculum. That work led to Sunflower becoming a Nature Explore- certified school in 2008. The curriculum also includes elements from other early childhood models, as well as an emphasis on teaching empathy.

“There’s a lot of value and relevance in a lot of different early childhood philosophies,” Marisa Ellman said. “We always like to enhance and add to what we’re doing. It’s really been a 40-year process to get to where we are now.”

Jordan Martindell, whose 4-year-old child Rey Rey attends Sunflower, said she chose the school because of its outdoor play philosophy.

“We are a nature-loving family and have found that our kids are happiest when spending ample time outside,” she said in an email message. “The outdoors playspace, partnered with Sunflower’s educational values, provide an ideal place for Rey Rey to explore learning. Rey comes home from Sunflower with a full mind, a tired body and a nurtured heart.”

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Debbie Ellman started Sunflower Preschool in a basement in south Boulder 40 years ago, with daughter Marisa Ellman taking over as owner, operator and teacher after her mother retired five years ago.

The Montessori science- and nature-based preschool closed last school year during the pandemic, reopening in June. Five staff members now are working with 20 students, ages 2 1/2 to 6, in mixed age groups.

Iris tosses up leaves at Sunflower Preschool on Friday. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Marisa Ellman said she kept enrollment lower this year — the preschool is licensed for up to 30 students — to allow for more distancing and more personal attention as students start or reenter school after a year of isolation.

While the school already had outdoor classrooms and outdoor curriculum, she said, students now spend even more time outdoors. Until the mornings recently got chilly, she said, students were only inside for rest time — and are still outside about six hours a day. The school also added HEPA filters and, as required by Boulder County, uses indoor mask-wearing and morning health checks as additional safety measures.

Still, she decided to close Sunflower last school year because of the challenges of operating during a pandemic and the health concerns of her staff. Two of the school’s teachers have worked there for more than 20 years, and turnover is low.

“It was a hard decision, but I didn’t want to try to run a preschool during a pandemic with new teachers,” she said, adding all the school’s teachers returned in June. “I feel very thankful to have such a dedicated teaching team.”

Tatum plays on the rings at Sunflower Preschool on Friday. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Sunflower Mars, one of the teachers who started at the preschool more than 20 years ago, said she found a private teaching gig during the closure working with just three students — and making more money — but still returned.

“It has been in my life for 20 years,” she said. “I couldn’t see it go down after COVID. I just really wanted to see it flourish. I was happy to help the Sunflower legacy continue.”

She picked Sunflower for a school-required internship out of the phone book, saying she noticed the school because its name matched hers. The preschool was also close to where she lived and when she visited students were studying Mars as the planet of the week.

“I said I guess I’m meant to be there,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to work. We have such a close team. It’s our little Sunflower family. Working with young children, it really helps keep you present. That’s one of the benefits, that I love what I do.”

Marisa Ellman attended Sunflower herself as a child and taught there as a teen and in the summers while home from college, then went on to work for nonprofit organizations. She returned to Sunflower as a teacher in 2014.

“Things came full circle,” she said. “What I wanted to do was there all along.”

Maxine peeks through the kitty hole on Friday at Sunflower Preschool. Sunflower Preschool, a nature-based school in Boulder, celebrates its 40th anniversary. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

In its 40 years, Ellman said, the school’s curriculum and emphasis on nature and science have evolved. The school continues to follow three tenets of Montessori education: mixed age groups, team teaching and child-directed learning.

The Ellmans over the years added to the outdoor space, which now includes an outdoor theater, mud kitchen, nature art area and reflexology path, and added outdoor curriculum. That work led to Sunflower becoming a Nature Explore- certified school in 2008. The curriculum also includes elements from other early childhood models, as well as an emphasis on teaching empathy.

“There’s a lot of value and relevance in a lot of different early childhood philosophies,” Marisa Ellman said. “We always like to enhance and add to what we’re doing. It’s really been a 40-year process to get to where we are now.”

Jordan Martindell, whose 4-year-old child Rey Rey attends Sunflower, said she chose the school because of its outdoor play philosophy.

“We are a nature-loving family and have found that our kids are happiest when spending ample time outside,” she said in an email message. “The outdoors playspace, partnered with Sunflower’s educational values, provide an ideal place for Rey Rey to explore learning. Rey comes home from Sunflower with a full mind, a tired body and a nurtured heart.”

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