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CEC founders Eric, Elyssa Nelson will retire after 40 years at the helm

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Eric and Elyssa Nelson, who co-founded the Child Educational Center together in 1979 as a childcare facility for JPL employees, recently announced they will be retiring in July 2020.
(Courtesy of the Child Educational Center)

After 40 years of providing educational programs designed to nurture the physical and psychological growth of young children through outdoor play, Eric and Elyssa Nelson, co-founders of the Child Educational Center, have announced their plans to retire.

The couple issued a statement last week to school families — including those at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory and La Cañada Unified School District, for whom the CEC provides preschool and after-school services — saying they would leave in July 2020.

Eric Nelson serves as a consulting director in charge of professional development, while Elyssa Nelson is the center’s executive director. A national search for her replacement, conducted by Los Angeles-based search firm Berkhemer Clayton, Inc., will begin in January.

“We both hope the new executive director will embody the vision of the organization and its values from a very deep place,” Elyssa Nelson said of her successor.

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Elyssa Nelson recalled in a recent interview being a newly single parent of a 3-year-old in 1978 when she joined the Children’s Center at Caltech as a teacher. Eric Nelson had taken over as director the year before and was working hard to resuscitate a program in decline, with much success.

When JPL leaders reached out to the director with an offer to create a similar program closer to the La Cañada facility, he accepted. Elyssa Nelson was eager to join the venture.

“We both had a vision, kind of independent of one another, of creating an early childhood community that would be a sanctuary for children and families,” she said. “It was very clear to both of us that we had something to do together that could be really great.”

The center opened on Sept. 17, 1979, and the couple married in 1981. Since then the Nelsons have overseen programs and classes on seven campuses, all of which emphasize the importance of playing in and with nature and produced research on their findings of its benefits.

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Eric Nelson launched the Outdoor Classroom Project in 2003. The award-winning initiative established a model under which early childhood educators could provide engaging learning opportunities in a carefully designed outdoor environment.

“What can you do outside that you can’t do indoors? Think about it — water, sand, swinging, climbing, building, all of those activities,” he told the Valley Sun in 2015.

With the publication of “Cultivating Outdoor Classrooms,” the CEC-centered project became a model for childhood learning centers throughout California, including Pasadena’s Pacific Oaks College Children’s School and the Great Pacific Patagonia Child Development Center in Ventura.

But it all began on the La Cañada campus, a former public elementary school the Nelsons have leased from La Cañada Unified School District for the past four decades. In an email Monday, LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette said the district has been fortunate to have the CEC as a school-age child care provider.

“Elyssa and Eric are at the heart of the CEC and will be greatly missed,” Sinnette said. “Their program’s service delivery matches the excellence we aim to provide in our educational program. The governing board and all of LCUSD joins me in wishing them every happiness in their retirement.”

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