An interview with Preschool Director, Marty Watson
Dodge Nature Center and Preschool in West St Paul, MN, was home to the 2016 Nature-Based Preschool National Conference. Attendees were captivated by the nature preschool's design, teachers, and programs, so we thought we should spotlight the center so others could get to know it, too. We asked Director Marty Watson about what makes her school special, what advice she'd give to those just starting a nature preschool, and more.
What makes your school special?
Our school is a special place for children and families because of the outstanding teachers dedicated to young children and nature. The teachers at Dodge have backgrounds in early childhood education, environmental education, fine arts, child psychology, and a deep belief that time in nature is a necessary part of growth and development for children.
Dodge Nature Preschool is part of the Dodge Nature Center. Even though we are only 10 minutes from downtown Saint Paul, we have access to almost endless natural resources that includes ponds, streams, prairie, forest, a variety of wildlife, a farm with animals and gardens, bees, apple orchards, maple syruping, teaching birds, reptile and amphibian lab, natural history collection, and naturalists who can add depth and knowledge to almost any topic of interest we come across.
I also think it is unique that we have a model farm and are a nature center, too. Often a nature preschool may be in one or the other setting but not have both available.
What is a day like at Dodge Nature Preschool?
A day at the preschool is almost 3 hours long. We have morning and afternoon classes. Our school building is a beautiful structure designed to give a feeling of visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin in the Northwoods of Minnesota.
The parents/caregivers bring the children inside to the classroom and are welcomed by their teachers. Depending on the weather, parents help their child gear up to be ready for the day.
Children usually spend at least 1 hour outside and often it is more, and sometimes it is an all-outside day. Children can either play in our large playground or go on a hike to a number of locations around the Nature Center. In the summer, children become very involved in sand and water play in our very large sandbox. There are raspberries and strawberries on the playground and often children are checking for sweet treats. A children’s garden offers a variety of vegetables and flowers that become part of play and snack.
Children often leave the playground in small groups of 6 with a teacher. These groups are able to explore the vastness of the Nature Center grounds and the intentions of the experience varies with children and teacher input, the season, and new things happening at the farm. Children have a snack and there is a group time. Time inside is spent at a variety of interest areas such as blocks, art, writing, exploration and discovery, and others. There are many objects from nature and opportunity to reflect and respond through art materials, blocks, and dramatic play.
How do you involve parents in the school?
Parents are involved in many ways in the Preschool. We have parent workshops on topics such as the importance of play; activities such as family overnight camping on the grounds, family picnics and gatherings, weekend events offered by the Nature Center, coffees, and class parties; volunteer opportunities such as playground clean-up, washing snack dishes so that we can use real dishes, and fundraising; and classroom visits are encouraged, where families often participate in an outdoor experience together.
How do you manage risk at the school?
We work as a staff to be prepared for risk. Risk is discussed during in-service and regular staff meetings. We look at the value of risk and determine what the children will gain through the risk. We have taken time to evaluate situations to determine whether the benefit to the child outweighs the risk. For example, we value play on ice, but make sure we know the depth of the ice, have a rope with us, and two adults are present.
How do you use the natural areas of the Dodge Nature Center?
The wild areas of the nature center are used in so many different ways. We have a “Mungle Jungle,” which is an area of trees and logs that have had rope challenges added. An area has been turned into “Best Camp Ever,” which is a sort of a playground in the woods. Children climb low trees, make campfires with teachers, created a big nest, have space for dramatic play, and often read and tell stories together here. There is a place called “Tipi Hill” where there are many rocks, probably collected from the land by farmers many years ago. In this place, children move rocks around to make endless patterns and shapes. Sticks in the woods make shelters. Tree fort villages often evolve and are great spaces for dramatic play.
You have been operating longer than most nature preschools. What advice would you give to those just starting new schools?
I would advise those who may be thinking about starting a nature preschool to think carefully about staffing patterns and classes offered. There is great value in staff being able to have time to reflect on their work with each other, and being able to write about the work and present it to others. Building this time into the day and week is important.
It is important to realize that teachers who do this work are specialized. They need to know and understand preschool children and education and they have to have an understanding and appreciation for nature and the environment. There is a certain amount of grit that is needed to be able to go outside in all of the weather. It is very important to understand compensation and benefits that are needed to be competitive in the education field.
Over the years, families have requested a kindergarten program. I think children of kindergarten age could benefit greatly from a nature program and is something that may be included in a new start-up.