Category Archives: nature

Nurturing a Sense of Place

Posted November 23, 2016

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by Amanda Janquart

We set off with a true sense of adventure, the task to explore a completely new locale. A plan was hatched as the class stood and looked into the wooded area – some would go that way, others the other way and we’d meet on the top of the hill. One of the first finds was a small gap between two large tree trunks – a secret entrance! Everyone squeezed through to enter the new land. We were now in the newly child-named land of Cowallet. The feeling of excitement grew to giddiness – what would we find in this land?? Itty bitty mushrooms, a garden tag, and a tree that grew bark right over parts of an old fence – as if the wire was poked in on purpose. A child volunteered to climb the tree to help us get our bearings. Could she see the golf course? What was over the hill? Too many other trees were in the way to tell. Everyone gathered to rest in the fallen leaves and we sang Going on a Bear Hunt. This had been a great adventure.

*Excerpted from the Spring Room daily email to families of the preschool class.

How we interact with a place influences what it means to us. Think back to the places which helped define childhood. Were we told how to behave in the space, or given free range? Could we choose the paint color, or was it forbidden to leave fingerprints on the wall? Did we build forts and redirect streams or were we too nervous to leave the trail? For young children, emotion is the primary attachment factor, determining which places stay with us as we grow. At All Seasons, a positive emotional attachment to our outdoor space is the goal. And stewardship is a hopeful result of sense of place.

The quality of our interactions with places matter. With preschoolers, time to explore independently and as a community is balanced with an adult’s sense of wonder and appreciation. What does that look like at All Seasons?

~ We keep it playful. Every space offers a chance for pretend play.

~ We repeat visits throughout the seasons. The Swamp is transformed after a period of rain.

~Problems and challenges can be solved bit by bit. Pulling Buckthorn can be done in stages. Children can learn how to use sticks safely with practice.

~There is comfort knowing we can always come back. Forts can be worked on when interest swells.

~ Children have a say, helping decide where to go. A fire to roast apples in The Boulders can be planned and anticipated. A request to see if the Fairy House has changed can be easily accommodated.

~ Risks are allowed, and even encouraged. Balancing on fallen tree limbs or flipping over logs to see insects in The Woods takes courage.

~ Resilience is built when accomplishments accrue. Climbing into The Dinosaur Tree can take months of trying. Climbing up the sledding hill on The Golf Course takes patience.

~Families are kept informed of the spaces we explore through daily emails.

~ Teachers are always looking for ways to extend and expand experiences. In Cowallet, a newly named area of the woods, we planted seeds to return to. Yarn was brought to The Pines to expand the booby trap play. Journals, snacks, and books become more interesting in unexpected places.

In the end, we are building memories. Some bind the classroom community through shared experiences, and some connect individuals to specific places. We are doing our best, nurturing a sense of place and growing stewards.

Nature as a Teaching Partner

Posted March 18, 2015

by Sarah Sivright

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Nature is an amazing teaching partner for many reasons. It provides opportunities for just about everything—math, science, art, beauty, literature, imagination, pretend play, large and fine motor movement, friendship, cooperation, problem-solving, building, observation, stewardship—the list seems to have no end. One of the best parts, and the first reason the outdoor world is such an effective partner, is that children don’t need convincing or cajoling to join up. They can’t wait to get out there and see what’s waiting.

And when the seasons start to change, a lot is waiting. There is literally excitement in the air. As the temperatures warm, snow and ice melt, sap runs, insects appear, smells seep out of the warming ground, puddles appear, and, of course, glorious mud. Today we went to “The Swamp,” a small wetland area across Allen Way, the road in front of Inver Glen. On Wednesdays, we have a longer stretch of outdoor playtime for this trek (it feels like the other end of the world to a three year-old). A narrow spit of land stretches between two small ponds. One pond is filled with young willows and grasses, and both will be filled with frogs in a few weeks. The peninsula holds intriguing burrows and tracks, and the first couple years it sheltered a nesting Canada Goose pair. At the other end of the land is a small woods with pine trees, where we find deer tracks and scat. From the tip of the spit of land to the opposite shore (five feet) are several bridges made of long branches and found planks. These transform into space ships, the Billy Goat Gruff bridge, pirate ships, horses, etc. A culvert pokes out from the bank along Allen way, with ice or running water adding to the excitement. The banks on either side are steep and a wonderful climbing and sliding challenge. The culvert spills into a pool in the spring, and then dries up for different play.

Watching the play that takes place in this magical world is revealing. With a sufficient and stimulating area to explore and no shortage of materials to use, behavioral issues and conflict we might otherwise see are absent. The pace of play is leisurely and uninterrupted, with teachers nearby to share discoveries or join in the play or just watch with pleasure. No environment needed to be set up, materials purchased, activities planned—a gift, pure and simple.

Every Child In the Woods

Posted October 24, 2014

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Richard Louv prompted an important focus on the benefits of nature play with the publishing of his book in 2005, Last Child in the Woods; Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In the last decade, there has been an increasing amount of research on the cognitive, emotional and physical benefits of unstructured play in natural spaces. The All Seasons staff came to this school convinced of the value of nature play, and probably enjoy this part of the day as much as your children do. We see the research data written plainly in the faces and bodies of the children—the feeling of freedom and discovery, joy and confidence.
In 2008, the National Toy Hall of Fame inducted “The Stick” into its lineup of all-time best toys. Increasing numbers of nature play areas are being constructed, (see the article on the wall by Amy’s desk) including the Minnesota Zoo’s 30,000 square foot play space due to open in 2015.
As the notion of what constitutes an optimal playground for children has shifted, the question of safety has been raised. Danish educators, who follow a more open schedule and unstructured approach with young children, adopt the attitude of being “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.” Somehow the great outdoors has come to be seen as more dangerous than riding in a car, climbing stairs, or playing sports. We acknowledge the dangers involved with those activities and, for the most part, while taking some precautions, we conclude they are worth the risks.

Most injuries from outdoor play involve minor scrapes and bruises, yet parents and caregivers can often be heard to call out to the child climbing a fallen long—“Be careful!”  But All Seasons parents have entrusted their children to us and to this nature-rich environment. Right outside the classroom door, you’ll see a “stick box,” where children’s sticks are deposited when returning from outside. Several forts, a teepee, and two tents are visible throughout the grounds. A couple years ago, Amy’s dad constructed a wooden frame for the children to build onto, and additions and accessories continue to be created by each new class of students. Countless fallen logs and trees fill the woods, ready for climbing and transforming into hideouts and homes. Boulders provide chances to balance and jump and hide. The Meadow and Pines are environments with their own flora and fauna, and pretend play backdrops. Rain gardens, ephemeral pools, and “The Swamp” provide chances for water fun.

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What about safety? Goggles are worn when hammering new planks onto the boulders house. Children can climb trees and branches to the height a teacher can reach. No one eats anything unless the adult gives permission (blackberries are a favorite wild snack in the summer). “Stick training” includes: no touching sticks to another person, always ask first if your friend wants to sword fight, one stick per person, long sticks must be dragged or used as walking sticks. And—children come when they are called.
But we teachers have found that most children monitor their own safety, and err on the side of caution rather than risk. We probably spend more time saying, “I bet you can do that,” rather than, “Don’t do that, it’s dangerous.” Our role is that of a guide, a facilitator, an observer, a cheerleader, and sometimes a playmate. Most of all—and maybe most importantly–we share in the wonder, the curiosity, the pleasure, and the peace, that spending time in the natural world brings.

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