Feature Story

August 2015

Natural Start Alliance

Elachee 2015: Highlights from the Nature-Based Preschool National Conference

Christy Merrick

A field trip to two inspiring Atlanta preschools was the last big event of this year’s Nature-Based Preschool National Conference, and as we got off the bus when we returned, I realized I had a few hours before the closing dinner. I should have returned to my hotel to catch up on email. Instead, I decided to take a hike.
Along the trail at Elachee Nature Science CenterThe hike through the beautiful and varied Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve took me along trickling streams, across a suspension bridge, down to a quiet pond, and through a variety of woodlands. And because I neglected to read the back of the map, which clearly indicated that my route would take me over nearly 5 miles of North Georgia terrain, I walked much farther than I anticipated. But what a fitting end to a conference that has also gone so much farther than I expected. And it gave me an opportunity to reflect—in nature—on the incredible experience we had together this year.
For those of you who couldn’t join us at the conference, and also for those who did, I’d like to share some highlights and photos.



Elachee Nature Science Center and Preschool

The indoor classroom at Elachee Nature Preschool

This year’s conference was warmly and expertly hosted by the Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville, Georgia, not far from Atlanta. The center sits on 1,400 acres in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve and is also home to a nature preschool that opened in 2013. When they opened, Elachee served 8 students. Two years later, the school now serves more than three times as many children. Not only did the Elachee team welcome the nature preschool conference, but also the Association of Nature Center Administrators (ANCA) Annual Summit, which was held in conjunction with the nature preschool conference.

The Participants

Participants Patti Bailie, Marcie Oltman, and Susie Wirth

This year, over 90 people participated in the nature preschool conference, with some of the participants registering just for the Nature-Based Preschool Conference and some joining from the ANCA Summit. Participants came from around the US, from states including Texas, California, Washington, Minnesota, Maine, North Carolina, and Florida, to name just a few. In all, 23 states were represented, plus the District of Columbia, China, and Japan.

The Program

In listening to the sessions, I was struck by how the nature-based preschool profession is maturing. In his keynote, David Sobel didn’t talk about the value of nature, which by now most of us understand well, he talked instead about the need for more and better research on the impact of our work. There was also a major focus on setting standards for the field, demonstrating student learning in nature-based programs, and linking play-based and emergent curriculum to learning standards. 

Setting Standards for the Field

Small groups brainstormed best practices.

As nature-based schools expand, leaders are concerned about setting benchmarks of quality. According to Dr. Patti Bailie, a professor at the University of Maine Farmington who has researched nature-based preschools, “We are moving toward a definition of nature-based preschools that recognizes that high-quality programs focus on dual goals of fostering a child’s early development and also laying a foundation for environmental literacy. Great programs have to excel in both child development and environmental learning; they can’t just be strong in one or the other.”
Dr. Bailie led a session in which participants brainstormed what standards for nature-based early childhood programs should include. Groups considered four broad areas:
  • Curriculum—Inquiry-based, emergent teaching and learning was a major theme, along with the need for developmentally appropriate practice; authentic, place-based learning; and outdoor learning
  • Teacher-Child Interactions—Participants discussed the importance of teachers’ dispositions toward nature and their modeling of positive behaviors and attitudes, the benefits of reasonable risk, and fostering a community culture in the school
  • Environments—In indoor environments, a major focus was on creating spaces that evoke nature or natural elements and that are rich with manipulatives, artifacts, and reading materials; outdoors, themes emerged around the role of wild nature and diverse environments, and creating spaces that are defined but flexible, allow for appropriate risk, and are connected to the local environment
  • Program Administration—Participants discussed, among other things, considerations around licensing, professional development, staff supervision, hiring, finance, and parent interactions

Atlanta Programs that Shine

Quiet natural spaces in the city at Inman Park Co-Op School.

On the third and final day of the conference, we traveled to Atlanta to visit two programs that are located in the heart of the city and have incorporated nature in inspiring and beautiful ways. Inman Park Cooperative Preschool was founded over 30 years ago, and some of the original children are now parents at the school. The older children use an outdoor space (converted from a parking lot) that is a certified wildlife habitat, and includes a chicken coop, quiet areas, and picnic tables where the children eat and work. Rain or shine, children at Inman Park enjoy free play and structured activities in their nature play space daily. 
We also visited Turning Sun School, a Reggio-inspired school located just blocks from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to providing truly beautiful indoor spaces for children, the school has partnered with a community garden to create a farm-to-preschool program that provides community-supported-agriculture (CSA) shares to children and their families. The school also has a second campus that includes 12 acres of woodlands that the students explore daily. Turning Sun has embraced the place-based model of education more than perhaps any other school I have visited, engaging the children in a variety of projects that connect them to their community. On a wall in Turning Sun I spotted the Wallace Stegner quote, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are."
An extended light table at Turning Sun School.

Looking Ahead

Dodge Nature Center, site of the 2016 conferenceWe have already started working with next year’s host—Dodge Nature Center and Preschool in St. Paul, Minnesota—on plans for 2016. Stay tuned for the call for proposals. Dodge Nature Preschool has been operating so long that some of its graduates are now adults. We’re working on tracking some down to see if they’ll come back and reflect on their experience at the conference. In fact, one graduate from New Canaan Nature Center's nature preschool in Connecticut—Rod Malloy—is now himself the director of a nature center and was a presenter at this year’s conference.
As a closing activity at the 2015 conference, we gathered in groups according to our region of the country, inspired by Megan Gessler’s story of how she created a regional nature preschool alliance. What else could we do together in our different parts of the country? From regional alliances, meetings, or conferences to simply visiting each other’s programs, we thought about how we can sustain our work over the coming year until we meet again in the Twin Cities. Please keep us informed on what you’re working on, using Natural Start’s Facebook page, Google Groups, or simply send us an email at [email protected]We look forward to sharing your stories until we see you in St. Paul!

nature preschool conference, professional development