TreeVitalizing Our Forests

By Drew Rinaldi Subits, Land Stewardship Coordinator

You may have recently noticed a large clearing across the trail from Pine Grove, which has been steadily cleared and then mowed and maintained throughout the Spring and Summer months. If you have been there more recently, you may have noticed fencing and a young grove of trees and shrubs.

This newest planting effort was possible through the collaboration of our Land and Facilities team, a state-funded tree planting grant initiative from TreeVitalize, and a RJ Carbone, a local young man looking to complete his Eagle Scout project.

For the past five years, the Schuylkill Center has been the recipient of one these TreeVitalize grants which is intended to promote and develop sustainable urban forestry programs within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  We have planting sites all over the property, typically marked by black plastic deer fencing, that helps protect the young, relatively fragile trees.  The Land and Facilities team was certainly excited for this particular location as it is one of the most visible and popular sites on the property, just down the trail from the Hagy’s Mill parking lot and across from the well-known Pine Grove.  

Previously this planting site had been a grove of the equally infamous Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia elata), one of the more common, pesky, and aggressive invasive tree stands in our region.  These ecosystem dominators thrive by using rhizome root structures which means the roots continually spread and rapidly create new tree shoots underground in all directions.  In areas such as this, they quickly become the only species left standing, and totally outgrow, outcompete, and out-resource all other species, especially eco-precious natives.

These tree planting efforts came together on a beautiful September morning when Boy Scout Troop 177 of Wyndmoor, PA supported RJ in completing his Eagle Scout project.  There were a total of 51 people throughout the day, logging a total of 221 volunteer hours, to plant and mulch 100 native trees and 40 shrubs.  The team also constructed a deer fence around the perimeter of the entire planting site to give the young trees a fighting chance in this disrupted urban forest environment.

The planting was a great success, thanks to the efforts of all those involved, the Land and Facilities team, RJ’s planning, execution, and general leadership of a large group of eager helpers from Troop 177, and of course the crucial financial support of the TreeVitalize program.  It is these continued efforts that will make the difference and go a long way to ensure the slow and steady reforestation and next generation of forest canopy and native local ecosystems.  Many thanks to all involved, and here’s to the future forest!

 

Kindergarteners reboot their relationship with nature

“To Cattail Pond! To Cattail Pond!” several of the kindergarteners shout as they skip towards the Schuylkill Center’s serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  This is one of our most active sites on the property in the late winter and early spring when water is abundant and vegetation is emerging.

For our 5- and 6-year-old kindergarteners, it’s an ideal place to set the outdoor classroom scene. Given the overwhelming evidence of the many health benefits of learning outdoors, especially in the context of the current health crisis, the Schuylkill Center kindergarten is shifting to all outdoor classes.  This fall Ann Ward, a 30-year veteran in the field of early childhood education, will lead the class.

As a nature preschool, one that uses nature as the primary context for learning, research confirms that being outdoors improves physical, mental, and emotional health and development in children. 

Ann, and her co-teachers, embrace an emergent (child-led) curriculum rooted in the outdoors with the intent to create meaningful learning experiences that capture children’s passion while instilling a love for the environment.  A typical day includes child-led play in the understory of the woodlands or a hike along the banks of the ponds or streams that traverse our space here.  We bring materials with us on the trails including, writing paper, art tools, books, magnifying lenses and bug boxes, journals and  cameras; all with the intent to collect documentation of our day’s adventures. All of our “natural” learning is interwoven with the Pennsylvania kindergarten standards.

As Teacher Ann well knows, these “mindful adventure seekers are becoming lifelong stewards of the earth propelled by an innate curiosity.”  In this organic way, we enable these young minds the ability to build an intimate understanding of the natural world, one element at a time.  

Nature Preschool has honored the relationship between children and nature as the core of our mission since its founding.

According to Interim Director of Nature Preschool, Marilyn Tinari, “in both the preschool and kindergarten classes, the children are offered the gift of developing their emerging skills – in literacy, in learning, and socially and emotionally – through engagement with the natural environment on the grounds of the 340-acre Schuylkill Center.”  

Teacher Ann observes that “the majority of other schools have indoor programs where they need to take the student outdoors to learn or they take them on short field trips. What we’re doing here is essentially flipping that and our children will be spending all of their time outdoors this coming year.”  We incorporate all of the Pennsylvania standards into those activities so our children are growing physically and cognitively.

In terms of their sensory integration, playing and learning in nature is helping them develop fine and gross motor skills in a very organic way.  When they’re outside, children naturally encounter different types of surfaces as they’re hiking. At the Schuylkill Center, they navigate over logs, rocks and up and down hills; they adapt to changes in the environment, across different weather systems, and different seasonal experiences so their bodies are constantly engaged in vastly different ways.  

Our graduates of our state-licensed Kindergarten are raised to be stewards of the environment and how to find their place in it.  Ann observes, “they know how to engage with the outdoors without destruction, without conquest, without overpowering, and therefore their mark on the world is sustainable.” 

Our outdoor programming offers a rich and healthful alternative to traditional early childhood education, something that is essential now more than ever.

In the midst of natural and social crises, we have the opportunity to reboot and, reenvision our relationship with Nature and one another, starting with the education of our youngest citizens.

The Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool and Kindergarten will offer on-site programming outdoors for the 2020-2021 school year.  We will be following all required safety procedures as described in our COVID-19 plan (required by the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, one of our regulatory agencies).  Masks will be required for children (over 2 years of age) and adults, cleaning and sanitizing, monitoring health (of children and staff)  and, as much as possible, social distancing.  Additionally, in order to reduce exposure, we will be working to create “pods,” small consistent groupings of 6 children with one teacher.

For more information about the Schuylkill Center’s Nature Preschool, contact Marilyn Tinari at marilyn@schuylkillcenter.org

Children Need Nature: Tiny Worlds Terrarium

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

When children have access to natural spaces and time to explore these spaces beautiful things happen. With nature’s diverse textures, scents, tastes, sounds, colors, and shapes, young children find playtime in natural settings compelling and aesthetically inviting. As mindful adventure seekers propelled by innate curiosity, children eagerly seek nature’s loose parts (the leaves, the flowers, the pinecones, the shells, etc.) and use them in their play. In this way, young people build an intimate understanding of the natural world, one element at a time.children_need_nature

From fairy houses in the woods to shelters in the brush, children love creating tiny worlds.IMG_3583

Creating a Tiny World Terrarium is a fun project to do with young children. They can build a tiny world in a jar with soil and plants sourced in familiar places and add special treasures to the mini-landscapes, too. As tiny worlds are constructed, questions spark discussions about nature and children are inspired as storytellers, imagining what life would be like living in the tiny world.

Our Nature Preschool Sugar Maples (afternoon program) created Tiny World Terrariums with layers of stone, charcoal, soil, moss, and tiny plants. We brought our terrariums to life with special eye-catching treasures such as tiny clay butterflies and snails, coins, shells, and marbles. A sprinkle of glitter keeps it glittering all year! * Biodegradable glitter is best.

Materials:
-Extra large jar with snug-fitting lid
-Terrarium charcoal
-Small rocksIMG_3632
-Soil
-Tiny/young plants, moss
-Spray bottle with water
-Natural materials (bark, shells)
-Children’s “treasures”
-Glitter (if desired) * Biodegradable glitter is best.

 

Steps: 
-Gather materials you need for the project…
-Layer small rocks on the bottom of the jar.
-Create a layer of charcoal above the rocks…IMG_3573
-Add a generous layer of soil above the charcoal.
-Add tiny plants to the layer of soil. Spray gently with water.
-Add moss.
-Decorate the tiny world with treasures.
-Spray again until top layer of soil is wet and soft.
-Whisper a special message to the tiny world, add some glitter (* biodegradable glitter is best.), and seal with lid.
-Set your tiny world in a sunny place where you and your child can observe change over time.   (P.S.You do not need to add water unless you cannot achieve the humidity that your plants need; condensation should form on the inside of the jar and effectively “rain” on the plants when sealed and set by a sunny window. If your plants look dry and condensation is not visible, open your terrarium and spray with water before sealing for a second time).

 

 

About the author: Ann WardAnn Ward is a teacher with Nature Preschool. As a compassionate early childhood educator and passionate advocate for children and nature, Ann has over thirty years experience in early childhood education and a Masters of Education in Early Childhood Education degree from West Chester University, where she graduated summa cum laude after completing action research in early learning and loose parts nature play. Ann is also the founder and lead educator of Winged Wonders Education, a live monarch butterfly educational program reconnecting people with the natural world one butterfly at a time.

 

 

Children Need Nature: Jardín de Español

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By Eduardo Dueñas, Environmental Educator

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

 

In the course of my week, I have the opportunity to give a Spanish class to the kindergarten class at the Schuylkill Center. I honestly can’t hide my happiness when I enter the classroom and see children eager to practice and learn new words in Spanish—words that they use every time when they pass by me in the hall. I am amazed at the speed and retention that a child of four or five years has when learning a new language. Ideally, I believe kids should start learning a second language from an early age—they can carry the interest and skills with them for the rest of their lives! Continue reading

Children Need Nature: Rainy Day Hike

CNN rainy day hike

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

Activity: Rainy Day Hike

You will need:

Rain gear

  • Raincoat
  • Umbrella
  • Hat
  • Rain boots

FunInTheRain_KE_2.16 (5)What to do:

  1. On a rainy day (either during or after the rain stops), go outside and take a walk around your neighborhood. Follow the path of rainwater from your roof, your doorstep, or the sidewalk in front of your house. Where does it lead?
  2. Is the water carrying anything with it? Where do you think these objects end up?
  3. Notice areas where the water puddles. Why do puddles form in some places but not others? RainYard_KE_9.9 (3)Optional step: See how big of a splash you can make!
  4. If you follow the water to the end of your street, you might see it flow into a storm drain. Where do you think the water goes after that?

Continue reading

School District Partnerships Bring Outdoor Education to Classrooms

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By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

One year ago, the Schuylkill Center entered a partnership with Extended School Day Care Center (ESCC), an organization in the Norristown School District that provides extracurricular programming to families in the Norristown community. This mentorship program connects Schuylkill Center educators with district students, allowing us to bring the wonders of the natural world into an afterschool setting far away from our forest.
Continue reading

Children Need Nature: The Art of Tree Climbing

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By Alyssa Maley, Lead Preschool Teacherchildren_need_nature

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

I remember the moment during my childhood when I developed a bond with my favorite climbing tree on my front lawn—a Japanese maple. This tree was particularly challenging because it did not have lower branches. I had to jump up, grab a branch, and then swing my legs up moving my body like a monkey. Then I used my upper body strength to pull myself to begin the vertical climb. I have so many fond memories of tree climbing—I spoke to fairies, peeked into the second story of my house, and observed my world from a higher perspective. I had no adult assistance or supervision; it was just me and my tree. I learned how to listen to the branches—to assess the broken ones, and pick the safe, sturdy ones. I halted my climb when the branches moved quickly in the wind because I was able to assess the risk. I became a successful climber through practice, patience, and perseverance.

Continue reading

Children Need Nature: Joining State Standards with Natural Learning

childrenneednature-01-300x212By Nicole Brin, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education

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

pumpkinseedcounting_nb_10-30-17 (1)The inaugural Kindergarten class here at Nature Preschool is deep into its third month of school. If you walk into the classroom you will notice the book corner, art studio, block area, science and math manipulatives, and many other learning centers typical to an Early Childhood classroom. pumpkinseedcounting_nb_10-30-17More likely however, you will be drawn to the more homey aspects of the room–the number line made from acorns and sticks, the wall of photographed discoveries, or the shelf of beetles, millipedes, and other nature treasures. Just like the preschool classes, the (self-proclaimed) Mighty Oak kindergarteners operate on an emergent and inquiry-based curriculum and spend a large portion of their day outside. Kindergarten at the Schuylkill Center is designed to be an extension of the Nature Preschool experience, while integrating the skills and concepts being taught in kindergartens all over Pennsylvania.

So… how does that work? How do the Mighty Oaks enjoy these experiences while still being ready for first grade come June? A large part comes from the way in which the program is approaching the learning standards. Recognizing that the most meaningful learning happens organically and from natural interests, the teachers first take note of which developmental areas are being met as a result of their study of interest. Continue reading

The Norristown Program: Mentoring the next generation of environmental leaders

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

In February of 2017 the Schuylkill Center entered a partnership with ESCC, or the Extended School Day Center. A vital program in Norristown, Pennsylvania that provides before-care and after-care for the youth in eight elementary schools in Norristown. Our partnership allows education staff to work with two of these schools to enrich their education while providing mentorship to students.

This Norristown mentorship program is something that is very near and dear to my heart. Not only is it one of the largest and most ambitious outreaches we have done, but the program brings environmental education to an underserved community and reaches a very diverse audience, especially Hispanic and African American students. In essence, the program is simple: during the school year we go twice a week  to Hancock Elementary and Marshall Street Elementary in Norristown, after school as part of the community’s extended school day program. That program, offers themed crafts and games as well as homework help to improve academic performance.

The program is arranged so that students can participate when they want to, choosing to join in. We didn’t want to take these young students away from precious game playing or lego building (this kind of play can be just as vital to their development as formal education is). Last year, every day more students chose to join us for environmental education activities. Continue reading

Redefining School

by Nicole Brin, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education

Preface: The past 7 years teaching young children have taught me more about myself, our education system, and human nature as a whole than I could ever have imagined when starting out. The most recent 4 years spent teaching with the Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool have broadened my views of what is possible in the world of education and led me to the next step in my professional journey. As I move out of the classroom and into the role of Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education, I hope to learn, share, and advocate as much as I can for progressive, “out of the box” education. Demonstrating that quality learning can happen in a variety of different ways.

As many have said before – in order to build a better future society that so many people desperately want, we must start with what we are teaching our children.

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I was good at school. In fact, I might even go as far as to say I was an ideal student. I sat quietly, paid attention, and spoke when I had the answer to the question being asked. I did my homework and tested pretty well. My grades showed that I was a hard worker who stayed out of trouble. It seems unlikely that many of my teachers would remember who I was, and I’m not sure I remember all of their names either.

Now let’s think about this in a slightly different way…

I was good at “school.” In fact, I might even go as far as to say I fit the mold perfectly. I understood that adults knew more than me, tried hard to comprehend everything, and didn’t mind keeping most of my thoughts in my head. I had limited free time and was able to memorize and repeat the information deemed important.  My personal identity was not yet developed. It seems that my teachers prepared me with the work ethic and compliance needed to succeed later in life.

This is not entirely a bad thing…

I learned to read quite well, write intelligently, and do enough math to get by day-to-day. I was aware of the many uneducated in our world and knew that I was fortunate to receive the education that I did. I was and continue to be, thankful.

However, shortly after finishing my 17th year of formal schooling, I was amidst a personal crisis. Feeling rather stagnant, I was lacking true passion. I was unsure how I fit into the adult world and was struggling to find a career that was a good match. I was educated by modern society’s standards, but I wasn’t truly happy.

Little by little change is coming. I work to understand more about who I am as a person and what parts of this incredible world interest me. This is still ongoing, but my overall happiness is a direct testament to its success. And so, I began thinking; What if we could get today’s children to this place a little quicker? How could this benefit the wellbeing of society?

What if today’s education looked a bit more like this…

discovery_nb_4-21-16I am good at learning. In fact, I might even go as far as to say it is an ongoing discovery process. I figure things out, consider many different perspectives, and question everything while looking deeply into why. I’m finding my passion and sharing it with others. I am going to make the world better because of it. It seems that embodying these qualities in pursuit of knowledge may be one of the truest keys to life.