North Branch Nature Center: Educating Children Outdoors (ECO)
Educating Children Outdoors (ECO) is a nature immersion program developed by the North Branch Nature Center located in Montpelier, Vermont. ECO was founded in 2009 by two teachers within the Montpelier City School District for Kindergarten and 1st grade students. With a passion for learning and exploring the nature of Vermont, these pioneering teachers partnered with Amy Butler and North Branch Nature Center to get their students outdoors and into natural areas to learn once a week as a part of their science curriculum. ECO works in collaboration with teachers and their students throughout the entire school year to introduce children to the natural communities outside their classroom door while also meeting Common Core and NGSS standards. ECO is designed for students in preschool and all the way up to 6th grade. Now ten years later, ECO has made a positive and lasting impact in over a dozen public schools and has trained and consulted with over 100 teachers through our summer ECO Institute. ECO both emcompasses science, literacy, and math with its lesson plans and affords endless opportunities for children to learn how to care for themselves and develop empathy for the living world.
We asked Amy Butler to tell us more about the ECO program and how it has evolved over the last ten years.
Why did you begin the ECO program?
I began the ECO program because I was asked by a parent and two teachers in my community to help support them access the outdoors for learning. At the time I had been pursuing my teaching license and had been researching forest kindergartens in the UK. I was not only intrigued by the idea of being outside all day with my students, but I knew I could be a happy and authentic teacher if I could teach outdoors with nature. Being a kinesthetic and visual learner myself, with a background as a naturalist, I knew that by providing children with learning opportunities in the natural world I could give all students a place to be successful. Many of the founding teachers of ECO were kindergarten teachers who recognized the loss of play in their classrooms over their careers. With this loss, these teachers noticed an increase in anxiety and depression, children with shortened attention spans, and a significant lack in social-emotional skills. It took two teachers, a supportive parent, and a principal to say “yes” to pilot a program that involved immersing these young children into the local forest every week. The results were immediately positive and it didn't take long for other teachers to ask why all the children in the school couldn’t have ECO. I had finally found my calling as a teacher-naturalist.
Can you share a bit about the process of relationship-building with the schools and teachers that participate in ECO?
Healthy relationships are essential to our happiness and our ability to be caring and contributing citizens. I believe that the success of the program is because it is based on who we are in this little corner of Vermont and our relationships with the landscape and with one another. It is truly place-based and the process of relationship building with schools involves the landscape as well. That’s what makes learning with nature so magical, it can foster healthy bonding and attachment between people. In developing these partnerships with schools, we intentionally take the time to understand each school’s culture and the teachers’ experiences and comfort levels with being outdoors. Creating a nature-based program in a public school is not for everyone. ECO is not a “have to” program at any school we partner with. Teachers come to the work ready, willing, and daringly able to take on the experience. And just like inside the classroom, trust is foundational to teaching outdoors. Cultivating strong and genuine relationships with our teachers is of the utmost importance to the safety and engagement of our students. By working together every week over the course of an entire school year, teachers reap the benefits of a professional development course that shows up in their classroom every week.
In the 10 years since the program began, how have you seen it evolve?
The program evolves differently for each school and this growth can be synchronistic with what the school communities’ needs are at that time. Some schools hold ECO strictly as an early childhood program that supports child-centered play. Other schools weave it from preschool all the way to 6th grade to help meet science standards. Some schools we continue to partner with each year and other teachers adopt the model of ECO and make it part of their classroom with no further assistance from us. I have also seen place-based projects grow from the time that students have spent consistently learning in these natural communities. This is really the goal of a nature immersion program like ECO. With more time spent connecting with the natural world the students are given opportunities to act on these meaningful journeys and apply their learning to solve real world problems. ECO’s goal from the very beginning was to help us evolve our ideas of what we knew about environmental education and science instruction and bring a more accessible and multidisciplinary approach to the experience of learning with nature.
What do you see as some of the program's biggest successes?
I would say the biggest successes are the small moments that change the culture of a classroom. I hear students sharing stories about sightings of animals at the lunch table. I’ve witnessed the practice of empathy in the classroom among peers that mirrors their experiences in the forest. Parents are supportive of the program and say that ECO is the only day of the school week their child talks about. These are the successes we all share as nature-based educators. They are the universal effects of learning with nature on a regular basis. Since the start of the pandemic and our stay at home order we have been able to deliver online ECO lessons and activities to teachers and students. Because these children have had this experience with ECO since the beginning of the school year, the nature-inspired learning at home has been one of the easiest transitions for students. Children immediately adopted sit spots at home, walked to the park to “do ECO” or built base camps in their yards. These routines of ECO are embodied by the children and they feel a great sense of agency as they bring ECO into their homes. It reminds me that children always know when they need a band-aid. Here we have nature’s band-aid to help during this time.
Are there any lessons you've learned from ECO that you'd like to share with other nature-based programs?
Introducing nature-based learning into a traditional public school takes time. Give yourself that time and start small. Nature can easily be welcomed into the classroom before you start outings into wild spaces. The relationships and alliances you establish to support your nature-based program will be the ones that help you create a lasting nature pedagogy. Nature is inclusive and being connected to the natural world is a birthright! So be prepared not only to bring every one of your students along on this journey, but parents and community members too. You are planting a tree. One that can be tended by your students and it will be there for generations to come. That’s what learning with nature does, it stays with you, and ultimately it starts with you as the teacher.