Natural paintbrush painting at Naturepalooza.

Nature Preschool loves Earth Day

Children Need NatureBy Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

At Nature Preschool, our children are immersed in outdoor experiences daily, connecting them to their surroundings and the Schuylkill Center in a meaningful way.  At events like Naturepalooza, the children show their expanding knowledge and the bonds created through open-ended exploration.  Learning through play and touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, and hearing is what these children do best and it brings joy and happiness in many ways.  Just look at the smiles!  Below, some highlights from Earth Day and Naturepalooza with our preschool.

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

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Open-ended learning in nature

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

Crack, splash, plop, and snap – followed by sounds of children laughing as they explore the melting ice at Polliwog Pond.  “Look at this piece, I can see through it!” Next up, “I’m selling ice. Who wants a piece?” as an ice display is quickly assembled. A group of nearby preschoolers responds, “I do.  I do.” Then, the adventures begin as the children carefully select the perfectly shaped piece of ice for their next escapade. A natural material provides inspiration and imagination amongst the children. Continue reading

Nature crafts (1)

Winterfest with Nature Preschool: Winter, Stars, & Nature Crafts

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

Stars are a practical and magical symbol for children and adults alike. They are a mystery of the sky, full of gas, providing us with light, and are still something that we don’t yet fully understand. They are a symbol of hope, something to wish upon, or a picture to represent many holiday celebrations this time of year. With the dawn of the winter season upon us and the upcoming winter solstice, Schuylkill Center just held its annual Winterfest, a star themed family event welcoming Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool families and community members alike to join together in discussion, crafts and night hikes.

After spending the first part of the year getting to know one another, the Sweet Gums and Sycamores now are more comfortable at Schuylkill Center with their families, teachers, and friends. They now feel connected to the Center and acknowledge their roles as learners, planners, and leaders in their environmental interaction. We decided to share our experiences, and give the public a chance to get a sneak-peek at Nature Preschool by offering a special craft activity at Winterfest.

In preparation for Winterfest, the preschoolers began the week talking about the event, this special occasion to celebrate the changing of seasons. This prompted them to take the lead in sharing ideas for crafts and what we could do on that day. We shared the theme of stars with the children and invited them to tell us what they know about stars. The children immediately began saying things like, “They are big!”, “They are hot”, “Some are yellow and some are not!” Their curiosity was piqued as they began asking questions such as “How many stars are there?” Continue reading

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Nature Preschool, Community-Building, and Responsibility Rocks!

By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Lead Teacher

childrenneednature-01The first few weeks of Nature Preschool have started off with a busy buzz and hum as the two classrooms, Sweet Gum and Sycamore, have filled with children, conversations, artwork, lunch boxes, water bottles, and more.  It may seem silly but every September I am reminded how the beginning of the year reinvigorates teachers and classrooms as new personalities come together to build a community. It is loud (as it should be), it is busy (many moving bodies), it is messy (children’s hands at work), it is full of questions, thoughts, and ideas as the pieces of the classroom puzzle are beginning to fit together. Continue reading

Restoring childhood play… and Philly’s first nature preschool

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.   My street ran along the bottom of 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.

preschool hikeUnlike more structured activities, The Hill was totally open to our interpretation and needs:  it was a place where we could try to make sense of the complex world in which we lived by reconstructing it on a much smaller scale.  The Hill had scary places (“the swamp”) and refuges (“rainbow rock”).  On The Hill we were sometimes brave explorers discovering new lands 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 in nature (not just outdoors on the basketball court or playground, but 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.  (Learn more at http://www.childrenandnature.org/documents/C118/.) The challenge in our increasingly urban environment is: how do we provide very young children with the kind of immersive exposure to nature they really need?

The Schuylkill Center is keenly aware of this challenge, and already offers opportunities for nature play in many of its programs.  Now we are adding another path for children in the critical early years of development: we are opening a “nature preschool.”

The Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool will provide Philadelphia children with regular opportunities for direct contact with nature, on a daily basis and across the seasons—in a risk-managed environment.  Our classroom will open directly into our nature preserve, so students can jump into forests, streams, ponds and meadows.  They will grow and plant trees, rear tadpoles, catch butterflies, and generally just be outdoors in all seasons.

Although our preschool is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, there are more than a dozen nature preschools across the country, and we are modeling our program on the best practices of those schools.

For more on Nature Preschools, visit: http://www.greenheartsinc.org/Nature_Preschools.htmlGreen Hearts founding director, Ken Finch, will be at the Schuylkill Center January 10, 2013 to present the 2nd annual Dick James Lecture: Go Outside & Play! Restoring the Nature of Childhood.  If you’re in the area, come check it out!