Outdoor preschool

Seed Preschool teacher and owner Jennifer Stuart works with students on her moveable classrooom, a bus named Matilda. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Seed Preschool teacher and owner Jennifer Stuart works with students on her moveable classrooom, a bus named Matilda. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

A “Matilda” is an Australian bushman’s bundle of possessions carried when traveling.

It’s also the name of Seed Preschool’s movable classroom, which happens to be a bunch of school supplies bundled onto a bus. 

Seed Preschool’s Matilda is a fully working remodeled and repainted school bus that owner Jennifer Stuart parks on weekday mornings at Twelve Hills Nature Center.

The bus can accommodate as many as seven students ages 3-6.

Matilda contains projects, books and games all stored neatly in the various bins and cubbies installed where the seats used to be.

But Matilda is not really why parents choose this preschool.

It’s what’s outside the bus.

Once students arrive, sans electronic tablets, phones and laptops, they join their teacher outside for a fresh-air session of “trail hiking, collecting, observation and documentation,” Stuart says. 

Nature is the main course Stuart teaches, and she’s discovered an ideal location to share her life-long passion with children. Located on 20 acres of land previously occupied by 12 apartment buildings, Twelve Hills makes an ideal setting for learning about the outdoors.

There’s no typical plastic and metal playground, which is just fine with Stuart.

“I like things the children can play with and not have to have rules for a way to do it,” she says. “If you are one of those children that wants to climb up the slide and down the stairs, then at most playgrounds you get in trouble.” 

But not here.

Seed Preschool's moveable classrooom is a bus named Matilda. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Seed Preschool’s moveable classroom is a bus named Matilda. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The Seed Preschool students get to safely enjoy the unpredictable natural materials and surfaces that Mother Nature provides. A giant fallen tree branch becomes their seesaw. Five tree stumps turn into a three-child jumping game. Sticks are magic wands and reindeer antlers. Butterflies and birds and cloud formations become lessons of the day. 

Stuart studied child development at Brookhaven College and taught at the Dallas International School before starting her own program, the Community School of the Park Cities. In 2014 she created the Farm to Market Workshop, a series of nature-based classes for children at the Dallas Farmers Market and the bygone Urban Acres market in Oak Cliff.

Lugging school supplies for that program became a challenge, though.

When Stuart began imagining some kind of trailer or RV to cart her teaching equipment around, a mechanic friend told her a better idea would be a school bus since “they’re sturdy as a tank and last a million miles.” After some Craigslist shopping during the summer of 2016 she found one in Round Rock, and its previous owners delivered it to her house. 

Friends pitched in to rework and rewire the engine, strip out the remaining seats, eliminate the inches of dust that had collected in all the crannies and redesign and repaint the inside of the metal bus until it looked like a classroom. 

Because it never transports children, Matilda is registered as an RV, and no commercial drivers license was required. Matilda allows children to rediscover the outdoors, and Stuart believes that’s the most valuable lesson her Seed Preschool provides.

At the end of every day, the traveling veteran educator must somehow maneuver Matilda backwards around the parking lot’s one pesky tree and drive the big, easy-going schoolhouse back to her storage garage on Irving Boulevard, where Stuart’s bundle of treasured possessions will rest until the next day of learning begins.