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

Nature Preschool meets our pileated woodpecker

By Leigh Ashbrook

Editor’s note: one of the largest– and rarest– birds in the Schuylkill Center forest is the pileated woodpecker, our largest woodpecker with a wood chipper for a beak. We’ve seen them here this winter, and Nature Preschool has become enchanted by them. One of our teachers, Leigh Ashbrook, also a great birder, teaches about birds in the school, and writes about her students meeting them recently.

pileated chris petrakPhoto: Chris Petrak

Sixteen Nature Preschoolers are meandering along the Widener Trail toward the bird blind, flanked by trees of the second growth forest. Out of the woods on their left an emphatic Kukukukukukukukuk rings through the woods. One of the teachers calls out, “What do you think made that sound?” As the children turn their ears toward the source of the raucous call, the teacher then calls out, “We hear you, pileated woodpecker! Where are you?” Some of the preschoolers laugh, some repeat the question. The class is treated to the sight of a pileated woodpecker flying through the woods, long, slow wingbeats and its great size making it easy to find and follow until it disappears past Founders Grove. 

Along the Widener Trail is one of the locations here at the Schuylkill Center where hikers and birders can often find these marvelous woodpeckers.

Some of the locations that the pileateds tend to frequent are some of the very tall trees beside Fire Pond, and they will announce their presence with their kukukuk call, or perhaps their irregular, sonorous drumming on a dead tree. We have also heard the pileateds in the woods surrounding the Butterfly Meadow, working the loop of trees by the maintenance shed, the lower section of the upper fields trail leading to the ravine loop, and as far down the slope as Polliwog Pond. The most delightful sightings of this striking crow-sized woodpecker for our Nature Preschoolers, however, where they have been most visible and accessible to the young feeder watchers, has been at the suet feeders just outside the Sweet Gum classroom on the back side of the building. There the preschoolers are participating in Project FeederWatch, and both the male and female pileated woodpeckers have made appearances at eye level and even on the ground at times, amazing the children and adults. One cannot remain unimpressed by the sight of these marvelous birds! 

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: 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?

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Children Need Nature: The Art of Tree Climbing

Copy of Founders_RD_4-17-17_05

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.

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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.

Nature: Fostering children’s social interactions

Children Need NatureBy Rachel Baltuch, Nature Preschool Teacher

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

While researching the effects of unstructured play time in nature for young children, I discovered that the benefits are vast and encompass most aspects of children’s development. Play time in nature tends to affect children’s cognitive development, which includes intellectual learning, problem solving skills, and creative inquiry, and can lead to increased concentration, greater attention capacities and higher academic performance.[1]  These children also demonstrate “more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often.[2]

Additionally, the benefits of free play time in nature include reduced stress and symptom relief for some children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.[3] Lastly, unstructured free time in nature can improve children’s social skills, ranging from increasing children’s positive feeling towards one another, decreasing the amount of bullying and violence between children, increasing children’s imagination and creativity, and increasing their communication and language skills.[4] Continue reading

My Path to Nature Education

By Nicole Brin, Sycamore Classroom Lead Teacher

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Pennsylvania Land Trust Association for their series on conserved lands, like the Schuylkill Center, in communities around the state.

Rows of stuffed animals- bears, bunnies, dogs, lions- all lined up in the grass of my suburban Connecticut backyard as they got ready to start their school day. Their teacher, eight-year-old me, prepared to teach them all the things that I already knew in the wisdom of my few childhood years. I made attendance sheets, created lesson, and planned field trips to the garden behind our shed. I knew that one day I’d be a real teacher, sharing all the cool things I loved about life. Continue reading

Nature preschoolers treat penguin doll at play clinic

Children Need Nature: An Emergent Curriculum Study

Children Need NatureBy Kristina Eaddy, Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

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

Why do leaves change colors? What is under the frozen ice? And where do birds go during the winter? These are questions we hear every day, as Nature Preschool teachers. Young children’s minds are full of wonders and questions, trying to learn about, connect with, and understand the world they are surrounded by.

At Nature Preschool, we nurture this natural curiosity in young children by following the emergent curriculum approach. The goal of an emergent curriculum is to create meaningful learning experiences that capture children’s passion, foster inquiry-based experiences, and instill a love for learning. In contrast to a traditional, thematic-teaching approach, topics are not pre-planned in advance nor are they conducted in one- or two-week increments. Instead, a subject of study arises from the interests and developmental needs of the children in a group at any given time. A study can last anywhere from a couple of days to weeks, or even months, depending on how long the interest in the topic persists.

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Children Need Nature: Teaching Peace

Children Need NatureBy Rebecca Dhondt, Sassafras Classroom Lead Teacher

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

This time of year tends to be full of excitement and energy.  With so much baking, decorating, and visiting going on there are many stories that Nature Preschoolers are eager to share.  Children naturally begin to compare notes, trying to understand what is happening in their own homes and wondering about the ways others might celebrate teachers in the Sassafras room heard exclamations such as: “I have a Christmas tree too!”, “What is an Elf on the Shelf?” and “How do you play dreidel?”

An early way to help introduce children to cultural inclusion is to build on this natural interest in holidays.  This year the Sassafras class has spent time exploring Hanukkah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa.  We have welcomed visitors, read books, played games, sung songs, cooked traditional treats, and had many lively discussions.    The children love learning new things, finding similarities and differences.  After learning about the seven concepts of Kwanzaa one of the preschoolers said: “We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa, but we still care about all those things!” Continue reading