Children playing in a stream

The Importance of Learning in Nature

By Guest contributor Debra Deacon, M.Ed., Lead Teacher at Kinder Academy

Children and nature go hand in hand, or at least it should. Research has shown how important it is to introduce children to nature especially in the early years. Children today, especially our inner city children have a very limited opportunity to connect with nature. How can we teach our children the importance of our environment if they have a disconnect with nature?

This became our goal when we introduced the children in the Butterfly classroom at Kinder Academy to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education’s Nature Preschool. Nature Preschool is a fabulous program where children can learn about nature as well as learn about themselves as they investigate and make new discoveries. We wanted our children to be able to experience nature first hand, and learn from children in their own age group. Continue reading

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Education, climate change, and the “fierce urgency of now”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

When a child graduates high school, the environmental education movement strives to make sure that student is environmentally literate—she understands how the world works, maybe even takes actions to improve environmental systems.

As the climate quickly changes, those graduates need to know about global warming.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in a completely different context, referred to “the fierce urgency of now,” and environmental educators feel that urgency, as weather is warming, seasons are shifting, oceans are rising, glaciers are shrinking, the icecaps are melting, wildfires are raging, and species are disappearing at rates faster than many models once predicted.

But hold on. Continue reading

Children Need Nature: Cultivating Connections at Nature Preschool

Children Need NatureBy Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our Nature Preschool program. Read more posts here.

At Nature Preschool, the foundation of community is vital to building a positive learning experience for the children. We value the relationships among families, children, and school. We invite our families and friends (from Schuylkill Center, Kinder Academy, and neighboring schools) throughout the year to share their talents, read stories, or participate in art activities to strengthen the bond and build comfort and trust among all of us. This spring, our preschoolers enjoyed many visits to meet new brothers and sisters, explore each different family’s cultural traditions, art, music Nature Buddies, and the work with our wonderful Wildlife Clinic.  Enjoy some pictures from this spring!


SCH Academy Kindergarten partners with the Schuylkill Center

By guest contributor Caitlin Sweeney, Kindergarten Teacher, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy offers a variety of unique programs and student opportunities through The Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). CEL teaches entrepreneurial skills to prepare students for the ever-changing world ahead of them. Entrepreneurial skills are developed by channeling a child’s natural desire to learn by doing. Children are asked to look both locally and globally to solve problems by applying design thinking, collaboration, and financial literacy skills, as well as new media technologies.

1949f3f1-35a2-48f1-896d-eea0ee4f0dbcKindergarten’s CEL project this year was paired with our annual Animals in Winter unit. For this unit, each girl becomes the expert on a local wild animal, researching her animal and eventually teaching the class all she knows. Looking locally, we were thrilled to partner with the Schuylkill Center, one of the first urban environmental education centers in the country.  Working with a community partner helps the girls develop empathy by solving a problem based on another person’s needs, or in this case, perhaps an animal’s needs. Kindergarten brainstormed a list of questions we wanted to ask the Schuylkill Center, questions that would help us learn more about the Center’s work and its potential needs. We asked our questions, via Skype, to Michele, a rehabber at the center. This interview session generated terrific information and served as a guide for our projects. Following the interview, kindergarten identified three areas in which we might assist the Schuylkill Center:

  1. Help calm and provide stimuli to the hurt animals.
  2. Help the staff stay clean while working at the center.
  3. Help the Center educate the community about their mission.

50cef060-c0d4-452d-ac5b-a6f0933aef74A few girls decided to design toys and made blankets and pillows for injured animals. Girls also painted wallpaper for the cages, to bring a sense of the outdoors inside. A team of girls designed a retractable sponge to help the staff clean cages. Another group made an easy to dispose of basket to assist in animal cleanup. One group of girls also thought of a new way to drop off animals at the Center at nighttime. And finally, in order to help the Schuylkill Center educate the community about their work, a group created T-shirts with instructions for taking a wild animal to the Center and set up a collection site here at school for donations of food, towels, and blankets. This group made announcements at our assemblies and hung up posters to make our SCH community aware of the good work being done by the Schuylkill Center.

Our work with the Schuylkill Center became part of our everyday lives in kindergarten. The girls acted out the roles of rehabbers in the dramatic play area and built their own version of the Schuylkill Center in the block area. When learning becomes synonymous with play in kindergarten, you know a meaningful connection has been made. When our students have opportunities to connect to the real world, solving real problems, it enriches the learning experience, creating purposeful and reflective learners. As teachers, we emphasized the process of this project over the final product, posing guiding questions of “why” and “how” and “what next?” For the girls, the opportunity to return again and again to their work over an extended period of time encouraged reflection and the idea of pushing forward in the face of failure. Upon reflection, girls said, “I liked this project because it was fun to make things for animals.” “It feels good when people help you so I liked helping the Schuylkill Center.”

The kindergarten team would like to offer a huge thank you to the Schuylkill Center for partnering with us and enhancing our curriculum.

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) is an independent school in Chestnut Hill with a unique model distinguished by single-sex education for the lower grades (Pre-K through 8) followed by a coed Upper School.  

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Children Need Nature: Nature Preschool Bread and Soup Night

Children Need NatureBy Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

The winter is a time when many families cozy up indoors and enjoy quality time with one another. At the Nature Preschool, of course, we still venture out onto the with the children each day, asking questions and exploring the winter environment. This winter, the children from the Sweet Gums, Sycamores, and Sassafras rooms all wondered, “What do animals do to adapt?” This has been a common topic of interest at this time of the year and we were especially excited to build off of this for our main winter family event, Bread and Soup Night. Continue reading

Playing in nature playscape

Do I have your attention?

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

My son is in first grade and he is struggling. Struggling to sit still, struggling to be quiet, and struggling to give his teacher the long periods of undivided attention the schools are asking of our young children.  His teacher has employed several positive strategies to try and help him meet the school district’s needs:  he has a “wiggly seat” on his chair that helps him to stay in his seat, she has star charts for attending to the teacher, and most recently, a star chart to reward being “calm and quiet.” While I appreciate his teacher’s efforts to address her expectations of him in a positive way, I am dismayed that the school fails to understand their role in his struggles.

In a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom, the children are almost constantly attending – paying attention during morning meeting, to a book being read, to a worksheet to be completed, to the lesson being taught, to the reading and phonics activities, to the art projects.  The ability to direct our attention to a chosen focal point (called “directed attention”) is an incredibly important neurological capacity.  Directed attention is under voluntary control, which means that we can choose to focus our attention and resist our impulses when needed.  These abilities allow us to be perceptive and observant, behave in socially appropriate ways, to be reflective before taking action (i.e. not acting out on every emotion), to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate. Directed attention is hugely important to learning and school success. Continue reading

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Day of Service and Reunion at Nature Preschool

By Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

Children Need NatureAt Nature Preschool, support the connection among parents, teachers, and the Schuylkill Center as a whole.  Preschool is often an early opportunity for parents to make connections with other families over shared values and interests.  It is our goal to strengthen and foster these relationships through families’ time at the Schuylkill Center.  In our first year running the Nature Preschool program, we hosted a day of service on Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Last year, we invited past preschool families to the Center for a reunion in the spring. Both events were great experiences but as we began reflecting on family’s availability and the idea of connections and service, we were struck by the idea of combining these two events.  Continue reading

Dear 2040: Damien Ruffner wonders about the future

By Damien Ruffner, Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool

October 2, 2015

Damien RuffnerDear Future Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool,

I hope this letter finds you well. As I sit here wondering what 2040 will look like at the Schuylkill Center, I can’t help but wonder if even the position will exist in that year. I have been here exactly three years as I write this and my title has changed three times in as many years. So I imagine it will continue to grow and evolve as the programing we offer moves forward.

I’m not sure if compensation time will still be in the handbook in 25 years, but I hope it is. Because this position requires a lot of it! I’ve worked 10 hour days, 14 hour days, I’ve slept here at the center, and I’ve worked overnights with kids for 3 or 5 days at a time. The position requires so much energy and dedication. But in my opinion it is clearly the best position to have here. No one does more fun stuff than I get to do. Kayaking, canoeing, parasailing, standup paddle boarding, camping at the most beautiful spots the mid-Atlantic region has to offer. And all of this doesn’t come close to the best part of my job, the kids. I am in the unique position where I not only get to see kids grow, I get to help in the process. Shaping the young minds of the future is such a satisfying thing for me. I’ve been here 3 full years now and have seen some small kids grow into young adult and mature right before my eyes. And my heart swells every time I think of each and every one of them. I hope you love this place as much as I do. I hope you love the early mornings. Mornings when you’re the first one here, working a 10 hour day-off camp and closing the building after everyone has left. Those are the days I’ll remember the most. Those are the days where your dedication and determination will be the only thing you have to rely on. But even with those long days, you get so much more out of the center than you put into it. Working a 10 or 12 hour day would be torture if it was in a hospital, or some corporate office. But here, on these 340 acres, it’s paradise. I hope you take advantage of the outdoor space. Take walks alone. Sit and just be in the presence of nature.

Another perk of my position is I get to work with such a wide range of the community. On a Monday, I might work with a group of Kindergarten students for a “first look at a pond” lesson. Tuesday I’ll work with an AP biology class on water quality and ethical water use. Wednesday I’ll work with a wide range age group from the Philadelphia School teaching about seeds. Then on Thursday and Friday, I’ll run day off camps for 5-12 year olds and take field trips to local outdoor and educational spaces. And finally on Friday night, run a stargazing event for 100+ adults looking to learn a little bit more about our world (And other worlds). It may seem overwhelming at first to think of such a diverse group that you have to reach. But it comes in waves. I started with just one group: our afterschool program, the Monkey-Tail gang. Then as things became more comfortable, more was added to my plate.

I get to be outside every single day. Not most days, not some days, all of them. I think about some positions here and they might spend the entire day indoors. And I feel for those people. If the position evolves to a point where you are stuck inside daily, I beg you to take a step outside every day. I see little point in working in such a magical place without experiencing it daily yourself. Reset with the natural world around you.

Good luck with all of your programming. I can’t imagine the types of programming you’ll offer in 25 years, But I’ll come back and visit. Maybe even my own kids will be a part of it? Who knows?

Damien Ruffner
Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool

Editor’s Note: Dear 2040 is a series of blog posts containing some of the letters included in our 50th anniversary time capsule, buried in October 2015.  Throughout the rest of 2015 we’ll be posting some of those letters, sharing what our leaders, thinkers, artists, and Schuylkill Center staff are thinking about the year 2040.  You can read all the posts here.

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Children Need Nature

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

I was born in 1975, part of Generation X, probably the last generation whose parents felt comfortable sending their kids out into the neighborhood after school.  “Go outside and be back by dinner,” was a common directive from my mother.   Behind my house was an undeveloped hill, and “The Hill” was where my sisters and I went when my mom sent us outdoors.  My childhood was also filled with Girl Scouts, dance classes, and community soccer, but my best memories and my most formative experiences come from the times my mother wanted nothing more than to get me and my sisters out of her hair for a few hours.  The Hill was totally open to our interpretation and needs:  it was a place where we could try to make sense of a complex world by reconstructing it on a smaller scale.  On The Hill we were sometimes brave explorers and other times victims in need of rescue.   The Hill was whatever we needed it to be.

A growing body of research in early childhood development is revealing the critical connection between this type of exposure to nature and the developing brain.  Children who spend immersive time playing in nature tend to be less anxious and better able to focus, and to have fewer health issues and more emotional resilience, than children who don’t.  Nature play allows children to choose their own adventure, based on the amount of challenge and risk they feel ready to take on at any given time. Should I walk across that log?  What will happen if I balance these three sticks?  I want to move this tree stump, can I carry it myself?  Do I need help to move it? Experiences like these are how children build awareness and confidence in their abilities and decision making.  We want our children to have lots of these experiences before they become teens and begin making decisions with more consequences.

The best nature play occurs in places that are near the home, easy for children to get to on a regular basis.  Most people have access to some form of nature, the trouble is that often people don’t “see” the nature in their communities.  For a child, nature can be very small – playing in the dirt sheltered by a bush or playing among the roots of a tree.  Rain, snow, dirt, rocks and sticks are basic elements of nature that provide excellent opportunities for play.   Creating works of art with mud, building snow forts, jumping in puddles, building with sticks and rocks – the possibilities are boundless.

Children’s attraction to nature is instinctive; nature is the primary biological context for our cognitive and physical development.  Our brains have evolved to be responsive to the natural world.  Technology and our culture have evolved far more rapidly than our brains.  Our brains still respond with fear and disgust to spiders and snakes, despite the fact that people are statistically more likely to die from an automobile than a spider.  Our brains still drive us to be attracted to homes near water, despite the fact that in the developed world we can get water in any home simply by turning on the tap.

Nature (on any scale) fires up a child’s developing brain in a way nothing else can, and the benefits last well into adulthood.  Playing in autumn leaves in childhood offers a joyful play opportunity and that rich sensory experience becomes linked with the emotions of that play.  When that child becomes an adult, the earthy smell of autumn leaves, the way they crinkle and crumble under your touch, the colors against the ground, these sights, smells and sounds carry with them those positive feelings from their childhood.

When I think back to my childhood, The Hill dominates my memories.  In reality, I probably spent less time on The Hill than I did at soccer, Girl Scouts, and dance.  It is the power of nature play, linking rich sensory experiences with high emotional stimuli, that makes my childhood experiences on The Hill loom large in my memory.  Every child needs a special nature place, big or small, that meets them where they are and gives them what they need.  And every adult needs to have that special nature place in their heart, connecting them with feelings of peace and joy, whenever they might need it.

This piece was first published on the blog of the Community Design Collaborative on November 11, 2015.10.28 RD15

In the Bird-seed Shelter

Environmental Art at Nature Preschool

Children Need NatureBy Rebecca Dhondt, Sassafras Lead Teacher

When people think of a preschool experience, art almost always comes to mind.  Children need art, not only for the development of their creativity, but as a support for growing cognitive, social, and motor abilities.

children at picnic tableAll high quality preschool programs incorporate art daily. Walking into a typical classroom, parents will see evidence of painting, gluing and sculpture.  Hopefully there will be a well-developed art center with various supplies that are easily accessible to the children.   Also, completed works of art will be clearly labeled and prominently displayed around the room and in the halls.

Our Nature Preschool is no different, except for this: from first inspiration to finished project art always involves nature. Continue reading