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The children continued to explore the seasonal connections between the farm and forest. From pumpkin and gourd rolling to apple tasting, the children discovered how harvest foods are important to animals, including people. With all the rain, we also visited the “magic stream”. This provided opportunity to explore how things sink or float. Favorite activities included a pumpkin provocation for painting and an invitation to play with beautiful natural objects and fruits on the overhead projector.

Nature’s bounty was on display this week as we visited the Pearlstone Retreat Center and farm. From harvesting potatoes to discovering how goats are milked, the children experienced what fall is like on a farm. The children continued their investigations of seeds and fall food through play with wheat dough and acorns, while some classes made purple dough with pokeweed dye*. Children also gathered seeds to make seed crowns, explored ears of corn in the sensory table, and learned about root vegetables by touch and smell.

*Pokeweed berries are amazing in color but should never be eaten. All parts of pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) are toxic at different times in the plant’s growth cycle and can be harmful if ingested. The berries are the least toxic when ripe; the root is the most toxic part of the plant. That said, pokeweed has many medicinal uses and even shows promise in some cancer treatments. Poke berries are highly valuable to wildlife and the ink is wonderful for painting and writing. If you incorporate poke berries in your play, please be sure that children know not to eat them!

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Autumn, in all her golden glory, is here. This week the children explored the meadow, full of wispy seeds, swaying grasses, and hopping insects. We discovered seasonal changes and compared them to changes happening in the forest. The birds are noticing the dimming light and eagerly searching for food, so the children made feeders to help them. We also observed fall foods for the birds, like spicebush berries and pokeweed, and painted with brilliant magenta pokeweed berries. We painted binoculars for closer investigation during our time in the bird blind along the trail, too. Berries abound!

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As summer gives way to autumn, seeds and fruits abound. The children searched for seeds in all shapes and sizes, and examined how animals use seeds to prepare for winter. We also discovered the many ways seeds travel.

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It can be scary for students and parents when the first day of school arrives. There are many new faces, routines and expectations. While there’s no way to eliminate first day jitters altogether, we were grateful that families participated in Monday’s Preschool Family Orientation. This gentle starts offers a glimpse into our routine (EX. signing the class roster and finding an arrival stone). It also allows teachers and peers to meet, followed by a scavenger hunt of our indoor/outdoor learning environments.

Orientation seemed to put everyone at ease, as classes this week ran beautifully! The children began feeling out the rhythm of our day and their role as a student in our learning community. Favorite activities this week include learning how to tell stories using story stones, sharing summer adventures with photos from home, and hiking to the overlook on the trails for the first time together.

One challenge for students is learning how trail walks in nature preschool are different from walks as a family. Staying behind the teacher is necessary for each child’s safety and something we will continue to work on all year!

Enjoy the photos below to see your child in action. We can’t picture every child each week, but this will give you a feel for what we’ve been up to.

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As early childhood programs go, it’s no surprise that our educational approach is unique. Daily outdoor learning and child-led exploration, in all weather, is hard to come by in most preschool settings.

With unstructured, child-directed play and exploration as the cornerstone of what we do in The Nature Preschool, it’s also no surprise that creative arts experiences are prominent. Visit the National Art Standards for more info.

Though all of the teachers embrace the arts and weave them across our curriculum, I have never tried to articulate all of the rich experiences we offer.

While attending a summer arts institute for graduate students at Towson University, the role of arts integration in our program became even more defined. The course examined each art form (dance/creative movement, music, visual arts and theater) in the context of early learners. As the course moved through each art standard, examples overflowed of how we infuse the arts into students’ experiences. Here are a few examples of arts integration in The Nature Preschool:

Dance & Creative Movement Arts:
-We move our bodies like animals (EX. turtles, snakes, grasshoppers, birds, deer) as we try to “become” them
-We move our bodies to represent natural processes (EX. rain/water cycle, snowflakes falling, seeds sprouting, twirling fall leaves)
-We dance in the wind using twig ribbon wands
-We practice yoga poses and meditation/breathing techniques
-We dance and invent dances to respond to natural sounds or music

Theater & Dramatic Arts:
-We pretend to be animals through puppet play
-We invent scenes and stories by dressing up in costumes or using props
-We make props that can be used in dramatic play (EX. leaf crowns or capes)
-We participate in puppet shows as characters and/or as an audience
-We write/dictate stories which fellow students act out

Music
-We respond to nature with our own sounds (EX. we mimic a rainstorm with our bodies as instruments)
-We sing and learn songs, many with sign language
-We listen to different kind of music, we often dance to respond to music
-We experiment with instruments (real and found)
-We sing or play instruments as we try to keep a beat
-We experient with sounds by finding natural/recycled objects that can be transformed into instruments
-We identify patterns in sound (EX. woodpeckers tapping or frogs calling)
-We listen to outdoor sounds and try identify them
-We record our voices or sounds in nature; we do this in different seasons and compare how the recordings sound different
-We use songs as greetings and good-byes
-We use songs to transition between activities
-We use instruments to cue transitions (EX. our rainstick signifies clean-up, the squirrel bell signifies gathering outdoors)
-We visit places in the community to hear music (EX. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)
-We celebrate through music (EX. our annual Spring Sing Campfire)

Visual Arts
-We observe nature and reflect on our observations in nature journals
-We use a range of art materials to express ideas or reflect on learning
-We create our own art materials (EX. melted heart crayons, walnut or raspberry die, spice paintings, homemade scented play dough, moon dough)
-We discover and practice traditional art forms (EX. wool felting, embroidery/hand sewing)
-We make observations about each other’s art and the art of illustrators; this helps children use art language (line, color, shape, texture, space) and develop aesthetic judgments
-We explore a variety of art processes (print-making, painting, drawing, sculpture, relief, sewing, papier mache, clay, collage)
-We discuss how producing art and looking at art makes us feel
-We respond to music through art experiences
-We create patterns and/or shapes in art taking inspiration from nature
-We record trail experiences through artistic exploration (EX. lines that indicate how a bird or squirrel moves across the path, making tree bark rubbings)
-We learn about artists and artwork from other cultures, especially through families sharing during classes and visits to local museums
-We utilize art to illustrate concepts we are learning about (EX. cycle of a seed or body parts of animals)

Although I am energized with even more arts integration ideas to try, I wanted to reflect on some of what we already do. Child-led experiences are the basis of early childhood education; they are also the best vehicle for exploring the arts and the natural world. The two inherently go hand in hand.

I hope through this reflection you, too, might glean more ideas to try with the lil’ ones in your life!

It is a daunting task to justify the value of nature-based learning despite the enormous body of research to substantiate it. When stacked up against other early childhood education (ECE) programs, how does nature-based learning measure up? Is it really as valuable as other ECE programs?

Challenging Educational Norms |  Since establishing The Nature Preschool in 2010, we have set out to prove just how meaningful nature-based learning can be. We devote ourselves to helping children build relationships and respect for each other AND the natural world. We buck against developmentally inappropriate practices for early learners (no worksheets, rote memorization and confinement behind desks!). We insist that learning for every child is authentic, that is, a series of unique learning experiences informed and led by that child’s own skills, interests and ideas.

Children guide learning in a culture where question-asking, outdoor exploration and idea sharing is embraced. Children are assessed in an individual, non-standardized way based on their own individual progress, not in comparison to others. Children connect with the natural world through unstructured outdoor play. Though our approach aligns with well-documented best practices, it is seldom a reality in typical ECE programs.

Many people believe that a true child-led education like this can’t or doesn’t really exist. Or if it does, it can’t possibly be sanctioned by licensing. It sounds too good to be true. As the founding director, I am here to say that it does exist at The Nature Preschool. We strive every day to make it better and better.

Our belief is that children are wonder-filled beings with their own ideas. In our program, teachers are thoughtful guides in the process of learning. Children are capable of making decisions about learning and play without incessant adult interference or constant narration. Children learn through risk-taking, sensory investigation and trial and error. Teachers ensure the children’s safety and model positive attitudes and empathy. We embrace the emergent curriculum that Mother Nature provides. Just as research indicates, we too find that meaningful learning is rooted in experiential, child-led play by which children solve problems, make discoveries, invent and work together.

Given our fervor and passion surrounding child-led learning, we are on a mission to validate the role of nature-based curriculum, not only in The Nature Preschool, but in all ECE programs.

The NAEYC Journey |  In 2011 we began the rigorous process to obtain national accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). NAEYC is internationally respected for its high standards and ethical codes for early learners and ECE practitioners. We pondered “how do we earn this honor without sacrificing The Nature Preschool’s identity?” The intense accreditation process required holding a magnifying lens up to our relatively new preschool. Self-reflection and extensive, honest evaluation of our practices ensued over the next three years.

Ten different aspects of our school were evaluated internally. Some of the ten standards evaluated include Leadership, Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment. In total, there were over four hundred criterion by which we had to provide physical evidence to prove our compliance.

The preschool staff held many meetings to digest NAEYC standards and criteria. We had to analyze and define what each meant for our nature preschool. We reflected upon procedures, policies and practices. Improvement plans followed parent interviews, family and staff surveys. From minor tweaks to major policy clarifications, we faced them head on. Though tedious, the process forced us to define what’s best for teachers, families and our students and act on it accordingly.

To NAEYC’s credit, accreditation does not dictate what programs should teach. There is no one right formula. It is about proving how teaching occurs in ways that are most beneficial for students, families and staff. The accreditation did not restrict our identity in the least. In fact, it validated many of our approaches including writing our own curriculum, outdoor exploration and unstructured play! Finally we were ready. We submitted our materials for candidacy and waited for our official site visit.

In March 2014, we learned the NAEYC assessor would arrive. During her visit she observed three mixed-age preschool classes for one hour each. (Imagine her surprise hiking our snowy trails in high heels!) She scrutinized our program and classroom portfolios, both overflowing with evidence of each criterion. She left with her poker face. We anxiously waited. In May we were overjoyed to learn that we earned NAEYC accreditation!

There is a small handful of NAEYC accredited nature preschools in the United States. We are the only nature preschool in Maryland with such an honor. With this distinction comes validation that nature-based learning doesn’t sacrifice foundational skills that other preschools offer. In fact, a nature-based approach exemplifies best practices for attaining such skills. The added bonus: a foundation for lasting respect and appreciation for the natural world.

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