The Environmental Nature Center announced Wednesday a $1-million gift from an anonymous donor for a future nature preschool on the grounds of the Newport Beach facility.
With the gift, the center has raised $6 million of the $10 million needed for the preschool project.
The donation brings the center "closer to the vision we've had all along," said Bo Glover, executive director of the Environmental Nature Center, which offers year-around nature programs for all ages at its 5-acre campus in Newport's Back Bay.
The donor also has pledged a dollar-for-dollar match up to $3 million.
Plans for the nature preschool call for a series of outdoor play areas, where students would spend most of the day, taught by teachers with environmental and early-childhood training. The preschool would be built next to the nature center on a 1.3-acre lot that was purchased for $3.2 million in 2012.
"Children today have such a disconnect with the natural world," Glover said. "To have a child reconnect with nature while still going through a traditional educational program is certainly appealing to a lot of parents in our community."
Experts say that increasing children's outdoor play can improve health and lower the risk of childhood obesity.
Glover said the nature preschool would be unique to Orange County, adding that it would be modeled after nature preschools he visited outside New Canaan, Conn., and in Milwaukee and elsewhere.
The concept, he said, is spreading.
"I know of several other centers nationally that have opened nature preschools in the last few years," Glover said. One of these is New Hampshire's Blue Heron School, a nature-based Montessori affiliated with Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Glover said.
The Newport Beach preschool building would be made of sustainable materials to achieve a platinum LEED rating, a system of judging how environmentally friendly a building is. But most of the lessons and activities would take place outdoors — an uncommon approach, said Lori Whalen, the center's director of education and community relations.
"There are places that call themselves nature preschools, but what they really have are schoolyards with a few trees and a food garden," she said.
The preschool, for children ages 3 to 5, will break ground when $9 million is raised. Enrollment would start at just under 80 children, and scholarships would be available.