In some ways nature school is just like conventional preschool; as children arrive teachers and friends welcome each by asking how their morning was, complimenting a new haircut, clothing choice or asking about special events previously discussed. The children know they’ll be spending the day learning, connecting and having fun. After parent “see you soons” they’ll gather with their group (pod) and teacher(s) as they ready to spend time together and that’s where differences become apparent…
A typical day at Nature School begins with meeting at an outdoor pavilion rather than an indoor classroom. Followed by bathrooming and handwashing and “getting into gear”. Children at nature school are ready for all types of weather; rain, snow and sun and have gear to keep them warm in the winter and dry in the rain allowing for a full range of sensory experiences. Rather than placing backpacks on hooks, children will carry them as they set out to their destination and hang belongings from the trees In our outdoor classrooms.
As we become sturdier on our feet and stronger in our legs we’ll journey to specific places we will become familiar with and use as our outdoor classrooms. Here is where the children will have circle time songs and participate in teacher led group activities using natural materials such as literacy and math games, art and storytelling. They’ll have plenty of time for free creative and purposeful play, discovery and exploration. These special spaces may include a meadow area to discover insects, a climbing area where fallen trees can be crawled on or built with or a creek to investigate pond life.
A fully outdoor format lends itself to a healthier approach to early childhood education. Spaces are open and children can be distanced if necessary (gently and without awareness). Objects for learning can be found and returned to nature, for example using acorns and pinecones for creating patterns or painting with pine needle brushes, minimizing shared materials. Imagination and creativity are sparked as the children find new and innovative ways to create with found objects encouraging problem solving skills. Self-confidence is built as children discover and gain physical capabilities providing a sturdy foundation for emotional and cognitive learning to come.
As our time together begins to wane, snack will be held either in the woods picnic style or following a walk back to the pavilion. As we enjoy our meal together, we’ll chat about highlights of the day, what we're grateful for and what we’re excited to do when we meet again. As parents and caregivers arrive we’ll wish our friends well until next time.
Just like Montessori, Reggio Emilia or Waldorf, Nature School is an educational philosophy. Nature Schools encompass both fully outdoor and indoor/outdoor schools with an emphasis on using natural materials for learning and connecting children to the natural world.
Forest Schools were first recognized in the UK in 1995 but can be traced back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Erin Kenney and Robin Rogers are credited with being the first Forest Kindergarten in the United States establishing Cedarsong, a fully outdoor preschool located in Washington.
Basing itself off the German forest kindergarten (Waldkindergarten) model Cedarsong set the bar for nature/forest schools exemplifying the philosophy of a commitment to an outdoor curriculum, nature immersion (as defined by Erin Kenny as “unstructured free time in nature resulting in an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world”), interest-led/child-driven learning and teacher’s role as mentors and guides “modeling curiosity and engagement”.
Research strongly supports nature based education for young children across all areas of development. Cognitive learning is that which develops “academic performance, language, STEM skills, critical thinking, scientific reasoning, [imagination] and creativity” Social-emotional development encompasses “self-concept, teamwork, leadership, initiative, locus of control and resiliency” while physical development (the foundation of all learning to come) focuses on “health, neurological-integration, vestibular, proprioception [and interoception] development, immune system and eyesight”.*
At Star Child Nature School learning is child-led and educational goals are met through experiences in nature. Connecting children to the natural world fosters compassion and reverence while participating in purposeful activities builds self-confidence and independence. Environmental education, fostering a respect for and a curiosity about the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms and developing all domains of the child (physical, social, emotional cognitive, aesthetic and spiritual) through multi-sensory experiences are at the heart of our program. Fully immersive outdoor play develops not only the five senses, but all eight, which include the vestibular system (body movement), proprioception (body awareness) and interception (condition of the body). Each of which are needed for young children to truly thrive.
Nature school is an all-weather philosophy. By celebrating what each season has to offer in rain, snow and shine we learn resiliency, discover change and embrace variety.
“Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. They will then begin to think, and the think is the beginning of a real education.”
thank you to my nature school colleague Jessica Kiley founder of Blue Ridge Forest School www.blueridgeforestschool.com for much of this information
I love that this is an outdoor school but what if the weather is severe? Does class need to be canceled?
We will have use of the pavilion as a shelter in case of a sudden thunderstorm. If possible, we will finish the day there, if it is not safe to do so parents will be called to pick up early. In the event of known unsafe weather conditions we will be using the Medford Memorial Community Center 21 South Main Street, Medford to hold class. A decision to do so will be made as early as possible.
An all-weather program is intriguing but how do I know what gear to buy?
A gear guide will be provided in a separate attachment. It is important to know that well-fitting, good quality items are a must for the comfort of your child. Gear can be purchased at thrift stores and Facebook yard sale pages to save money. As Star Child continues, we look forward to being able to offer hand me downs to incoming students.
Must I provide snack and water?
Water (tea or juice), yes. Teachers will have water on hand for refills.
Snack, no- well sort of. Each child is assigned a day to bring snack for the group. It is also your child's "Share Day" and may bring a special item from home to show the class. A snack calendar and suggested snack list will be provided upon enrollment.
Does my child need to be potty trained?
No. Your child does not need to be potty trained. We strongly recommend you changing your child’s diaper at drop off. As we are a three hour program, we will do diaper checks before snack (approximately 2- 2 ½ hours into the class). Bowel movements will be changed immediately. Children should have an adequate amount of diapers and wipes in their backpacks at all times. Teachers will wear gloves and use wipes and waterless soap for both themselves and the child if a running water source is not available. Diapers should be checked at pick up.
Where do you go to the bathroom?
The children will be encouraged to try going to the bathroom at drop off as part of their routine. Should a child need to go to the bathroom while in the woods a portable potty will be provided. In the warmer months we have access to bathrooms/sinks at the pavilion. In the winter we have access to the bathroom/sink in the JCC's heated Headquarters building. Wipes, hand sanitizer and waterless soap will be provided to clean hands if a running water source is not available.
What will my child be learning? How will I know they’ll be ready academically?
Star Child’s trained and certified teachers are committed to providing whole child experiences to each of the children in their care. Pulling from Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia philosophies learning experiences are developmentally appropriate focusing on what individual children are ready for. Curriculum is play based and child-centered. Our focus is to connect or reconnect children to the natural world through discovery, exploration and environmental education experiences. Stories are told building comprehension and therefore literacy readiness; team building and social skills are fostered enabling children to work together, ask for help or be a leader or executer. Question asking is encouraged as we learn together; botany, biology, physics and engineering are a part of our day, naturally.
While we believe academic readiness plays a part in early childhood, it is not our main focus. We will grow vocabulary during conversation, teach letters and letter sounds, math concepts and critical thinking during interactive play based experiences but what we hope to most strongly develop in children 2 ½ - 5 is sensory integration through sensory experiences and a connection to nature. Sensory integration is truly the foundation that all emotional and cognitive learning grows from. Without a sturdy sensory and physical base future learning cannot properly evolve. Nature connections are made by observing and being a part of seasonal changes, through plant and animal Identification, and using natural materials to build, create and imagine with.
Documentation comes in the form of picture taking, observation and note taking. Not only is this a way for you to peek into your child’s day but a way to share developmental experiences your child is engaging in. Conferences and conversation are always welcome. If parents or teachers feel it necessary to discuss weaknesses or the need for professional evaluation a time to talk will be made.
Please remember that not all learning comes in tangible ways such as recognizing numbers or the ability to read at age four. Being socially able, compassionate, capable of self-regulation and unafraid to ask questions are a big part of grade school readiness. Skills such creative thinking and problem solving or simply being a friend to someone in need are characteristics to value. The ability to hold one’s body up to sit at a desk, pay attention and have self-confidence come from sensory based learning experiences. Academics will come to all, when each is ready, our goal is to prepare your child for that moment and embrace it when it does.
© 2018. Melissa Sheppard. Star Child School LLC