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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.

The sunshine and rain continue to bring our corner of the world alive. This week the children continued to explore spring magic by:

      • going to the rain garden near the entrance and “swimming”
      • finding a click beetle in the Outdoor Classroom
      • discovering a huge black beetle in the Outdoor Classroom
      • planting seeds to take home
      • cooperating as a class to put together a dragon fly puzzle
      • singing “Head Thorax Abdomen”
      • using a juicer with fresh fruit
      • using wweep nets in the meadow to collect tiny insects.
      • making Playdough bugs with natural items, pipe cleaners and googly eyes
      • painting butterflies
      • making our leaf wands for the Flower Ceremony!

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Just what do nature preschoolers do in Spring? Here’s what emerged this week as we discovered habits of birds in spring:

      • making a nests out of cat tail fluff
      • making binoculars with toilet paper rolls (it never gets old!)
      • finding “wormies”
      • creating worm homes in mud puddles
      • exploring the wetlands and making mazes through the cattails
      • tallying the birds we observed in the meadow
      • checking in on a tree swallow nest
      • making observational drawings of birds
      • scooping, measuring and pouring bird seed in the sensory table
      • sharing letters from our pen pals at the Audubon Nature Preschool in birding adventures

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As we continue to celebrate what makes each of us special, we also continue to explore the spring thaw. The children had another adventure-filled week. Here’s what they were up to:

-finding 17 bones in a pile on the trail
-finishing up our chapter book, The Story Snail (Miss Sophie’s M/W/F morning class)
-using binoculars
-having imagination stations and circle time in the dark, in honor of Pajama Day
-puddle jumping in the giant Outdoor Classroom puddles! (See Miss Karen jumping on FB)
-discovering worms, worms, and more worms during and following heavy rains
-visiting the meadow to watch the tree swallows swoop and dive
-making dams and streams in the torrential rain
-sharing more All About Me Posters
-writing letters to the Audubon Nature Preschool about our bird sightings with Bird-A-Thon

preschool friends E is for Earth!

shadow tracing drawing shadows friends on the trail self portraits with preschoolers "Who am I?" eyes guessing game

teamwork with wheelbarrow planting in the greenhouse cutting out an "All About Me" puzzle

Every person is special and holds a special place in our beautiful world. This week we celebrated the many things that make each child unique within our learning community. here are some of this week’s highlights:

– sharing common interests and learning about differences with our All About Me drawings/collages
– playing “The West Wind Blows”
– mud rescues in the wetlands
– climbing the extra huge wood chip pile
– drawing outlines of our bodies or spaceships to put ourselves in
– measuring ourselves with sticks, scales and tape measures
– playing a who’s who guessing game based on photos of eyes only
– following bees to learn their travels in the meadow

Fuzzy chicks, mud puddles, and tiny seeds were the name of the game this week. Colorful signs of spring were explored through rainbow collaged books, plant-based dye-making (think raspberries making vibrant pink dye), and dyed rice rainbows. We began all kinds of seedlings (peppers, squash, arugula, tomatoes) in the greenhouse and in the cold frame. We also started seed experiments using ball jars and moist paper towels in the classroom. During our outdoor adventures, mud slurped up our boots which incited dramatic play of “mud rescuers”. 

We visited a favorite local farm at the Pearlstone Retreat Center to learn about life on a farm in spring. We harvested chicken eggs, planted lettuce seeds, explored worms in vermi-compost bins, met baby chicks, and had a wonderful time!

did you pet a chicken today?

did you pet a chicken today?

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staring contest

staring contest!

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