University Presbyterian Children’s Center Teaches Through Nature Exploration

university presbyterian childrens center upcc playground

We are proud to share this post focusing on University Presbyterian Children’s Center, an early childhood education program that teaches children academic concepts through nature exploration while helping them develop emotionally, socially, and spiritually

University Presbyterian Children’s Center
300 Bushnell Ave., San Antonio, TX 78212 (map)
Cindi Catlin-Gaskins, Director

Located next to Trinity University amid lush lawns and large oaks, the University Presbyterian Children’s Center (UPCC) campus practically begs children to get outside and play—and the teachers encourage them to do it! A Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom, the year-round school features two extensive outdoor classrooms where children are taught academic concepts through nature exploration while developing emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

“We offer developmentally appropriate, nature-based learning,” defines director Cindi Catlin-Gaskins, who has been with the school for 40 years. “All of the learning that takes place inside is planned for and implemented outside as well.”

Culture at University Presbyterian Children’s Center

Since its inception as part of the University Presbyterian Church in 1971, UPCC has been helping young minds grow academically and spiritually. Over the past 50 years, it has become more than an arm of the church. It is a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accredited institution that serves children aged two months to five years. Children may attend Monday–Friday from 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM, with part-time and full-time care options available. For five- to eight-year-olds, the school’s summer program, School-Age Outdoor Investigational Learning (SOIL), offers a chance to dig a little deeper into nature with age-appropriate activities. This appreciation of nature ties into the school’s spiritual component, including prayers, Bible stories, and an overarching theme of “caring for and accepting others.”

“Our spiritual enrichment is an exploration of God’s love and care for all beings,” says Catlin-Gaskins, adding that families of all denominations and beliefs are welcome. “We honor the traditions of all the families in the classroom.”

university presbyterian childrens center upcc students aquarium

Curriculum at University Presbyterian Children’s Center

At UPCC, children learn by getting their hands dirty—literally! The preschool “Explorers’ Yard” and the “Little Explorers’ Yard” for infants and toddlers offer creative and intentional opportunities for play-based outdoor education. Surrounded by shade trees and a blooming landscape, students master language, academic and social skills through thoughtfully planned learning centers based on each child’s individual needs and interests. In addition, the entire staff of UPCC has attended nature education training with the Nature Explore Leadership Institute.

“A beautiful natural environment has always been part of our campus, so we wanted to guide our educators into teaching through nature,” says Catlin-Gaskins. “Our staff attended training in California and came back with an understanding of how to implement nature exploration into our setting.”

Learning centers include a “Mud Kitchen and Diner” for learning mathematical concepts, a large “Garden Exploration” area for science and sensory education, an “Art Exploration” area for creative expression, and more. Both outdoor classrooms encourage safe climbing, roaming, and crawling, allowing the youngest children to develop vital motor skills while discovering the world around them. The natural elements continue within the indoor spaces, where oversized windows overlook the grounds and create the impression of being inside a treehouse. Creative play and exploration opportunities abound in these indoor spaces using NAEYC nationally developed, research-based standards while incorporating what Gaskins describes as a “potpourri of early childhood approaches.” 

“Our staff develops their curriculum according to the developmental need and skills of their age group,” she explains. “They have an assessment guideline, but we do not subscribe to one specific approach.”

The school does, however, follow a  project-based model, which allows students to learn about topics over an extended period. Themes may be seasonally based or include annual San Antonio traditions like Fiesta or rodeo. With a small student/teacher ratio, combined with the collective longevity of the staff, educators can offer a more individualized and custom approach within the group classroom setting.

university presbyterian childrens center upcc teacher students outdoors

Community at University Presbyterian Children’s Center

The nature-based structure of UPCC lends itself to a particular and unique community that crosses all socio-economic backgrounds. Families embrace the organized yet informal style of learning that does not include workbooks or screen time.

Parents become friends and often hang out on the expansive grounds after drop off or before pick up, visiting and building bonds amid the picturesque setting. They also take gather for community socials in the outdoor classrooms and participate in annual events, including the popular outdoor picnic.

“The families that come here value a nature education and are okay with their children spending a large part of the day outdoors,” says Gaskins. “Our families are those who are okay with their children getting dirty at school.”

For more enrollment information, payment options, including a need-based tuition assistance program, and registration, or to schedule a tour, visit or call 210-734-3035.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Cindi Catlin-Gaskins, Director of University Presbyterian Children’s Center, and Sandy Stout, Assistant Director, speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on May 16, 2023 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Cindi Catlin-Gaskins is the Director of University Presbyterian Children’s Center.

Sandy Stout is the Assistant Director of University Presbyterian Children’s Center. 

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