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.

September10 009As the season changes, I am reminded of what the warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunshine mean at the Schuylkill Center for Nature Preschool.  It is a time when this connection with landscape around us becomes more and more apparent. The Sweet Gums and Sycamores enjoy extended periods of outdoor time on a daily basis; however, the spring means a new perspective, a new viewpoint, and vibrant colors and changes ahead. The ponds start moving with life again as we noticed last week when a Nature Preschool teacher commented, “Look, under that leaf, something’s swimming!” The ice melts away to uncover the sleeping life underneath.  The children are re-energized as they equip themselves with sticks, the perfect tool for stirring up the sediment at the edge of the pond or begin fishing for a wet leaf. These experiences display the joy and gifts the environment provides for our classes each day.

loosepartsThis month, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the DVAEYC conference, this year focused on the importance of play. Play is not just play; play is children’s work, exploring and figuring out the world through interactions with people, the land, and materials.  I presented on natural play invitations and incorporating “loose parts” into the classroom. Loose parts, for early childhood educators, means materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, and taken apart or put back together in multiple ways. One of the most important aspects of early childhood development is critical thinking and problem solving. With loose parts, the children are engaged in open-ended learning that promotes both of these pieces to cognitive development. Loose parts promote creativity and imagination and can be adapted and manipulated in a variety of ways. They allow a child to invent, construct, tinker, and deconstruct, all requiring higher order thinking skills.

The Sweet Gums and Sycamores have many loose parts at their fingertips as they walk along the trails.  Each stone can be turned into an animal or a test for balance and weight in construction – again those gifts that we receive as a benefit of spending our days outdoors. The teachers attending the workshop enjoyed seeing all the activities and possibilities when incorporating natural materials into all components of curriculum. The Nature Preschool provided inspiration for teachers, new and experienced, and they do the same for me on a daily basis.

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