About eight years ago at this time of year, we were visiting nature-based preschools in the Midwest in preparation for opening the doors of our “Nature Preschool” at Chippewa Nature Center (CNC). Each site we visited had wonderful insights to share, and each and every one of them, usually as we were saying our goodbyes, would say with a grin something like, “You won’t regret starting a nature-based preschool! And be prepared: the parents will want a kindergarten and elementary school.” We would offer a dismissive giggle thinking, “Elementary school? We don’t even have preschool teachers hired yet!”
The fact is they were right on—parents did start asking about kindergarten. It wasn’t possible for us to open another school, so we started thinking about potential alternatives.
Searching for a Partner
We decided to approach Bullock Creek Public Schools with ideas for how we might develop a partnership. After much discussion and planning, including visits to schools, we settled on piloting a nature-based kindergarten at one of the elementary schools. Our goal was a kindergarten program that implemented the elements that make our Nature Preschool strong and successful: daily outdoor experiences; hands-on, real-world learning; and intentional integration of nature as a tool to achieve curriculum goals.
When we started, the plan was one section of kindergarten at Floyd Elementary, a Title 1 school about 6 miles down the road from CNC. This location made the most sense because of its 30-acre, primarily wooded property. So, in mid-August 2012, we announced the nature-based kindergarten pilot program and what resulted was amazing! The parent demand was so high that Bullock Creek offered three sections of kindergarten that fall. In year 2 of the program, which was no longer a pilot, the district added a section at another area elementary school.
Digging into the Details of a Nature Kindergarten
What does a Nature Kindergarten look like in practice that is so appealing to parents? To start, every day the class goes outside for part of their class day. These excursions may have a science focus, relate to reading they’re doing in class, or focus on math. No matter the activity, the children are experiencing their school property throughout the school year and building a connection with the outdoors. Once a week, a CNC educator visits the kindergarten classes to lead the day’s outdoor hike. This allows for modeling outdoor activities that the kindergarten teachers might not be comfortable with, as well as sharing content that might be outside the classroom teacher’s knowledge.
Indoors, the teachers also integrate nature into daily lessons. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers and CNC educator work together to develop the scope and sequence for the year based on seasonal events and the state-mandated curriculum requirements. This planning time includes selecting books for both large- and small-group reading times that relate to the seasonal theme. Math lesson planning also includes seasonal ideas for taking math outdoors, and ideas for natural elements that can be used for manipulatives. Writing assignments are outlined that can allow children to reflect on the outdoor experiences they’ve had during class. In other words, the teachers plan with intentionality on how to integrate nature into as many of the classroom activities as possible—making the learning hands-on, real-world, and more relevant to the children.
In September, for example, the teachers spend a week or two discussing insects. Outdoor time includes dressing a student up as an insect to discuss the main characteristics of an insect; searching for insects using basic equipment like nets, sheets, and bug boxes; and then later in the unit collecting loose parts (e.g., leaves, sticks, acorns) for building their own insect. Indoors, their outdoor experiences help the students create a thinking map to compare and contrast insects, such as a bee and a butterfly. Books that focus on insects and insect life cycles are used in both the large-group and small-group reading times. Work stations include matching photos of stages of the insect life cycle with the appropriate words; sorting images of arthropods into insects or non-insects based on the number of legs; cutouts of body parts that they put together to create their own insect; drawing their own insect; and other similar independent work stations. The general theme of insects—selected in September because of the plethora of insects outside to see and touch—gets integrated into virtually every aspect of the classroom.
Even the indoor classroom environment has a natural look with the traditional primary-color posters of letters and numbers being replaced with posters of Michigan animals corresponding to a particular number, letter posters that include images of Michigan plants and animals, and calendars that feature images of the Michigan outdoors. While there are still typical chairs and tables in the room, the plastic chairs at the group meeting area have been replaced with tree stumps. Chunks of wood have been drilled with holes to hold pencils and markers. Tables are identified with different shapes hanging from the ceiling made of sticks tied together. There are many other natural elements brought into the classroom that help create a nature-based classroom atmosphere.
Teachers Make the Difference
Of course, the success of all of the planning comes down to the quality of the teachers and their implementation. We have been very fortunate to have amazing teachers who are passionate about connecting their children to the outdoors, which results in creative and innovative ideas. As an example, this year the classes will be having their holiday party outside. How many schools do you know in the Upper Midwest that would have a party outside in December?
We recognize this is a different pedagogy than most teachers have been trained in. Thus, to help support the kindergarten teachers and ensure the program is effective, the kindergarten teachers participated in the Nature Preschool Institute the first year, and then we designed a custom training program in subsequent years. The Nature Preschool Institute exposed the kindergarten teachers to the philosophy and activities we use at Nature Preschool, so that they could think about how they might build the ideas into their own classrooms. Another critical element of the program’s success is the collaboration between kindergarten teachers, school administration, the nature center educator, and nature center administration. All of the people involved truly believe in the need for and power of connecting children to nature for their development physically, socially, and academically.
Looking Down the Trail
From the beginning of the program, it’s been clear that it’s not just educators that see the value in this program. The response to the Nature Kindergarten from students and parents has been nothing but positive. We make no promises on adding the nature-based program to higher grade levels, but we have been working on building the capacity of teachers at the other grade levels. Last year, the fifth grade teachers and students created their own natural play space in the woods separate from the kindergarteners’ space. This fall, the fourth-graders learned about the branches of government out on the trail, and then collected leaves to create their own “branches of government” artwork in the classroom.
The engagement from these other teachers is a result of two things: 1) Administrator support for holding class outdoors and understanding that it’s not goof-off time, but is instead intentional, curriculum-based instruction; and 2) Professional development that helps give teachers ideas about how to teach their content outdoors. Many teachers are realizing that a nature-based approach doesn’t always have to be teaching about nature, but can also be teaching in nature, or using nature as a teaching tool.
With teachers at other grade levels showing interest in the nature-based approach and parents asking again and again about first-grade and beyond, we find ourselves facing the same question we faced when we started our preschool: “When are you expanding?” What a great dilemma! Maybe in a few years we’ll be reporting on the nature-based elementary school. Stay tuned!
About the Author
Rachel Larimore is Director of Education at Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan where her responsibilities include administration of all youth-related programming including the Center’s nature-based preschool. She received a bachelor’s in natural resource recreation and tourism, a master’s in park and recreation administration, and is currently a doctoral student in the department of community sustainability at Michigan State University.
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