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River Mist Preschool works to see Durango’s children thrive and undergo transformational cognitive and social development.

Our mission is to honor childhood by offering a non-coercive, child-directed approach to care and education.

River Mist Staff are guided by the belief that learning is an intrinsic aspect of human nature, and academics are an integrated rather than isolated part of learning.  We directly involve children in the process of cultivating a rich, sustainable environment where all members of the community learn to balance freedom and responsibility.  We provide a safe and healthy setting for developing life skills, while deepening our connection to the natural world.  Our program continually evolves as we learn to be ourselves with others, and bring what we learn and love to our community.  At River Mist children have choices, enabling them to be decision makers and problem solvers, empowering them with a sense of self and community.  We are deeply influenced by our connection to the world around us, in particular our natural surroundings.  Interacting with young children is a constant reminder of the wonders found in nature.

“Education is not something that the teacher does…it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.’
~Maria Montessori

Our philosophical influences include:

  • Nonviolent Communication
  • Love & Logic
  • Education Thought Leaders as Jean Piaget, Lev S. Vygotsky,  and Maria Montessori.

We treat education as an awakening of the whole child, prioritizing the integration of physical, social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual development.  As adults we recognize our responsibility to be role models for children as we share the educational process with them. Through a variety of environments, experiences, and conversations we are supporting the children’s passionate and conscious involvement in their world.  We work to enrich life with strong relationships and creative expressions.  At the heart of our role as adults is our passionate and conscious involvement in our world.  Our enthusiasm for life introduces and exposes children to the beauty of diversity and the freedom of choice.


The River Mist staff is outstanding.  Each of us has a unique set of strengths that enrich the overall quality of the program.  Our staff meets regularly to work on healthy forms of communication and conflict resolution, and develop strategies to continually improve the quality of our program.

We are all certified in First Aid and CPR, and meet or exceed the licensing standards for early childhood educators.  We also partake in a minimum of 15 hours of continuing education related to the field each year.

Jennifer Tew, Executive Director

Ashley Phillips, Lead Teacher (Preschool Program, ages 3-4 years)

Clarissa Zeller, Lead Teacher (Preschool Program, ages 4-5 years)

Cara McCleer, Lead Teacher (Toddler Program, ages 1-2 years)

Emily Knuckles, Lead Teacher Floater



River Mist combines a traditional learning curriculum with the natural environment on its campus to present a blended model of early education unique to our school called Creative Curriculum®. Here is a description of Creative Curriculum from their web site:

“The Creative Curriculum® for Preschool is a comprehensive, research-based curriculum that features exploration and discovery as a way of learning, enabling children to develop confidence, creativity, and lifelong critical thinking skills. It is designed to help educators at all levels of experience plan and implement a developmentally appropriate, content-rich program for children with diverse backgrounds and skill levels.”

River Mist teachers use units of study such as trees, using both the Creative Curriculum materials and engaging with actual trees on their preschool campus. Exploration and discovery in the outdoors, and the teaching of conservationist principles, are a focal point of our programs. Our favorite units for preschool include the Garden Study, Insect Study, Sand Study, etc. These units are particularly beneficial because River Mist has the outdoor environment to make the learning authentic to the children.

River Mist also uses Creative Curriculum in its toddler program. While this curriculum is not designed as specific units of study, this curriculum provides teachers with developmentally appropriate activities and environmental design to foster and nurture the development of our youngest students. They also receive the benefits of traditional learning and learning in a natural environment.


River Mist’s goal is to honor childhood. This means we see each child as an individual on their own unique developmental path. We believe in meeting children where they are at developmentally and then nurturing them as individuals as they grow. We also believe in nurturing the whole child, which means that all aspects of who they are- including the domains of cognitive, social emotional, and physical development- are studied and considered in order to best serve the needs of every child. In this way, we create meaningful learning that can be assessed and shared with the child’s family.


River Mist uses three tools to track the development of its students. First, we use a parent feedback tool called the ASQ. The ASQ is filled out by the child’s primary caregiver. It is then scored by River Mist in order to gain understanding of where each child is on the developmental continuum. The ASQ is frequently used in pediatric offices as well as childcare centers. Second, River Mist lead teachers regularly observe each child’s play and document what they observe through pictures, video, and written notes. This increases the teacher’s understanding of student development. Lastly, in conjunction with Creative Curriculum in both the toddler and preschool programs, we use Teaching Strategies GOLD. This is a program that has specific developmental milestones catered to each age group. Each lead teacher enters data on each child into the TSGOLD system. This way development is tracked and progress can be seen over time. The results of these assessment tools, the understanding they can provide the teacher with, and the progress made is shared with parents at conference times.