When Eric and Elyssa Nelson founded the Child Educational Center more than 40 years ago, they aimed to create not just a child-care facility but a center to foster the holistic psychological and physical development of children, largely through healthful outdoor play.
“We thought of ourselves as creating a community, not a child-care center. We knew that happy teachers make happy children make happy parents. … We wanted love to be at the center of what we were doing,” said Eric Nelson, who was asked by Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory officials to help expand child-care options for employees and establish a La Cañada Flintridge campus, which opened in 1979.
Together, Eric and Elyssa worked to create a community-driven educational center at the former Oak Grove Elementary School campus on Foothill Boulevard. Soon after the school’s establishment, they married, and they’ll also be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year. Now, set to retire in the next few weeks, the Nelsons sat down to discuss via Zoom their legacy in childhood education and the many things more to come for them.
In four decades, the CEC and the Nelsons have flourished along with the children, many of whom have returned as adults with children of their own. While still serving the youngsters of employees at Caltech and JPL, the CEC also welcomes families from throughout the San Gabriel Valley to its infant, toddler, preschool and school-age programs that support the development of about 900 children daily at seven sites across LCF and Pasadena.
“In an industry where turnover is nearly 40% a year among teachers, we knew our focus on making the experience and environment for the teachers the best we possibly could would work very well,” recalled Eric. “It sounds simplistic but was actually profound — the longevity of our staff is quite phenomenal.”
The curriculum was developed in tandem, Elyssa noted, with a heavy emphasis on the philosophy taught at Pacific Oaks College: “People within our entire educational system can get so overly preoccupied in preparing our children for kindergarten rather than being focused on providing a solid foundation for life. So we focused more on the foundation and asked ourselves the question, ‘What kind of adult do we want our children to become?’ Then we can devote all of our capacities to the development that will help a young human become a successful adult. And success is not just defined as academic success.”
Elyssa took on the role of executive director of the center many years ago, while Eric became the CEC’s consulting director in charge of professional development, delivering a broad range of services to corporations, government, colleges and hundreds of early childhood centers. The CEC also began providing consulting services on the design, development and implementation of child-care programs through its award-winning initiative, the Outdoor Classroom Project, which established models to learn in an outdoor environment. His book, “Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms” was published in 2012 and has since become a benchmark in the education field.
Never did the couple, who tend to finish each other’s sentences and occasionally expound on a point the other made, think more than four decades ago that they might still be working at the same nonprofit organization for so long, but the truth, they agreed, is that the work has always been so compelling they never had a reason to leave.
“We tried to leave two or three times,” laughed Elyssa. “We always envisioned we would leave L.A. and create a center someplace else … but every time we tried, a new opportunity came along through Caltech or JPL or just from our own doing, just growing the CEC as a platform, and we kept using that to make a difference and grow our impact. It kept us very engaged.”
Eric nodded, smiling: “Being so attached to nature, we really did envision we’d get out of town. But it’s almost like we never got the green light to go. The Outdoor Project was huge … it kind of sealed the deal, and we recognized we’d be here for the duration.”
That duration has left an unmistakable legacy at the CEC, through the recruitment of staff members and teachers, many of whom have been there nearly as long as the Nelsons, said board President Katie Fallin Kenyon.
“The Nelsons are generous, loving people who truly want to make the world a better place — one child at a time. They love the outdoors and are passionate about the important role that nature plays in supporting not only child development but all human development and mental health,” Fallin Kenyon said. “They are pioneers in the outdoor classroom movement, both nationally and internationally, helping other child-care centers and elementary schools to bring the classroom outdoors and to use nature as a teacher.”
Fallin Kenyon said her own daughter attended the CEC, and the child loved every moment as it helped her create a love of learning through exploring and investigating what interests youngsters rather than following a standard curriculum.
“Eric and Elyssa put their hearts and souls into the CEC — they created it, nurtured it, and they are ready to see it flourish and grow under new leadership,” she said. “It is a truly magical place for children and families because of the love that they poured into it.”
Transitioning into retirement might be a bittersweet journey, the Nelsons admitted, with Elyssa noting that “I’m going to miss all the people, the caring, loving, respectful connections here. I will miss the energy of the children that really creates this magical environment.”
However, they are both looking forward to having some time for reflection and creativity (“In a more serene setting,” joked Eric). They both hope to write, perhaps a novel together, he added.
“We still feel we have a lot to contribute; whatever that may be, our intention is to contribute,” Eric said. “They say that the universe meets you at the point of your action, so if we put out there that we want to make a difference, opportunities will show up for us.”
To that end, Eric would not be an early child development philosopher if he did not quote Mister Rogers, which he did in earnest:
“Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.”