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Nature Based Learning at the ELC

Nature-Based Learning at the ELC

When you think of materials and spaces in classrooms for young children, what sorts of things come to mind? Colorful blocks, housekeeping areas, brightly colored alphabet charts, and playgrounds with manufactured climbers are all pretty common. What about logs, twigs, stumps, boulders, and dirt? These things are often not associated with desirable playthings for children, but here at the ELC these are things that are found in abundance in the outdoor areas and classrooms for young children to use in their play.

What is nature-based learning and why make the change?

For the past few years, the administrators and teachers at the Early Learning Center have been working to chweb2ange the landscape for children in our program as we have begun to embrace the concept of nature-based learning.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes about children in our society losing their connection to the natural world. Children spend much of their time participating in scheduled activities or engaged with screens and not interacting with the natural world around them. Louv named this lack of contact and engagement with the natural world “nature deficit disorder” and cites research that supports a link between the lack of outdoor interaction with trends in childhood such as obesity, attention-deficit disorder, and depression. We at the ELC agree with Louv’s theory, and we are not alone. Many programs across the US are beginning to branch out in an attempt to get children reconnected to the outdoors; across the world, the concept of nature-based learning has been around since the 1960’s.

Nature-based learning aims to provide a solution to the problems Louv and other researchers have brought to light. It encourages children to get outside, connects them with nature, and enhances their understanding of themselves and the world they are living in. Some examples of nature-based learning include:

  • Incorporating natural materials into daily classroom life
  • Promoting science, mathematical, and language development in the context of the natural world
  • Encouraging children to make inquiries and discoveries about the world around them
  • Using the curiosities and interests of children to create meaningful, engaging curriculum
  • Providing ample time to engage with the outdoors
  • Allowing and encouraging children to satisfy natural curiosities
  • Giving time and opportunities for children to develop an appreciation for the natural world

Assistant Director Elizabeth DeMartino Newton provides great insight to the motivation for our program to embrace this movement and apply it to our work at the ELC.

“As a program, we have always tried to do what we know to be best for children by staying abreast on what’s happening in the field of early education. We frequently read relevant publications, take inspiration from other programs we find to be doing important work with children, and reflect on our practice to continually provide a high quality environment for children to learn and grow. We are consistently challenging ourselves and questioning our own practice to be sure we are doing the best we can for children that enter our program.

Each time I read what Richard Louv has to say about our society’s decreasing connection with the natural world, the more it resonates with me, and the more deeply I connect with both his wisdom and call to action.  Louv and other writers, scientists and educators have helped us identify this focus on nature within early childhood programs as we learn to put into words these concepts that so beautifully fit with our philosophy at the ELC. In early childhood education, we call it nature-based curriculum, but really, this is an attempt to give both our children and the earth what they need and deserve.  We believe they will feed each other, and that – given where we are as a society in 2014 – this synergy need s our intentional support.  We began this journey as a group of educators on many different points of the continuum of nature literacy… From avid gardeners to those who could think of a million reasons not to play in the mud, we have all made a commitment to trust that we would learn from the process and offer the children something meaningful along the way.  We have found our competences and niches.  We have found joy in the children’s delight and in our own successes.  We have found frustration in our failed exercises, and discovered value there, too.  The journey continues to evolve for us, and we are dedicated to sustaining our focus and work in this area.”

Big changes and big results

One of the first big changes we made were to our outdoor environments. We underwent massive playground overhauls, removing many of the traditional play structures and toys. In place of these more traditional playground items, we brought in stumps, logs and loose parts such as sticks, tree cookies and real tools for children to use. We have encouraged mud play and have created dedicated places for mud to be cultivated and enjoyed by children. These new natural playscapes have inspired changes in the way both children and teachers interact with the outdoors.

Teachers note that children are engaging differently with the new playscapes, demonstrating deeper engagement with the materials available and using them even more imaginatively than the materials previously available. Children enjoy the outdoor spaces and frequently site the outdoor areas as their favorite places to be while at school. At five years old, Kindergartener George puts it perfectly: “I like being me… And outside on the playground- that’s being me”.

Another big change was our implementation of gardening. At White Avenue, we planted a kitchen garden and garden boxes throughout the playground. At Lake Avenue, garden boxes have been built for children to grow fruits and vegetables as well as plants that the children are encouraged to pick from in what they have coined “The Picking Garden”. Children are often anxious to try the foods they had a hand in growing. We have been fortunate to incorporate the foods grown on our playgrounds and gardens into our school’s food program. The garden spaces have offered us ample opportunities to explore the process of growth with children, both in times of an abundant harvest and in no harvest at all!Lake avenue has recently undergone a massive change to their landscape with the renovation of a previously unusable space. Where there was once a large sloping dirt hill, there is now a beautiful array of plants in multiple textures, a hobbit hole, a slide built into the hill and several paths for children to traverse and explore.

Katie Denton-Walls, a preschool teacher, said “We’ve been able to increase the amount of meaningful cooking experiences since having a garden. We’ve been able to work with the foods we’re cooking with from the time they were planted in the ground. Children are interested to try the foods we make, I think, because they had a hand throughout the process.” Several teachers noted that children are invested in the growing process and are willing participants in the development of our garden spaces. The first group of kindergarteners to experience the kitchen garden right outside their classroom door were transfixed on the rapid growth of plants in our new space and found interesting, imaginative ways to use it in their play.

A third change has been the process of incorporating natural materials into our indoor classroom spaces, giving children additional connections to the natural world. Teachers have begun to include materials you might not typically find in classrooms designed for young children: boulders and stumps take the place of typical imaginary play furniture, sticks, twigs and pebbles are now available as manipulatives for children to use for counting, sorting, and in play. Dirt can be found in what were formerly sand tables. Plastic bins for keeping materials organized have been replaced with baskets and containers made with natural materials, giving classroom spaces a calm, simple and less chaotic feel. Children are engaging with these new materials with the same (and perhaps more) enjoyment than they did with typical classroom materials.

Children work carefully and with intention when using these new materials, perhaps because we have been able to help children and teachers develop an appreciation for these items. Preschool teacher Kathryn Humber notes that children engage with these materials with greater depth and inventiveness than the materials that are more specific in their purpose. “Children are having conversations about these new materials that they didn’t have before. They are thinking more creatively about how to use these items and they make connections about the relationships rocks, sticks and stumps (all items currently available in her classroom) have to the outdoors.”

Becca Jenkins and Jessica Capps, mixed-age toddler teachers, have perhaps undergone the biggest environmental change, replacing most of their commercially produced materials with objects found in nature or loose parts found around school and home. Becca said, “I noticed that our children were engaged in surface level thinking during their play [with traditional materials]. There was no reason or motivation for them to use a slice of pizza for anything other than a slice a pizza.” Following some inspiration from a school tour in Boulder, Colorado, the teaching team decided to overhaul their classroom materials. After some time in the classroom, they noticed changes in the way their children were engaging. “Once we added a few loose parts, the children were using them in a variety of creative ways. The children validated our beliefs about their abilities to use small and intricate materials in productive and appropriate ways”, the two wrote in a reflection about their process.

All of these changes could not have been possible if it were not for the hard work and dedication to the process from our staff and current families. People stayed late and came to school on Saturdays to pitch in and complete projects that transformed our spaces. We continue to be grateful for a community of families that believes in our mission to more fully embrace nature-based learning initiatives.

While we are still reflecting and evolving in our work as a center that values and incorporates nature-based learning, we are confident that these changes are for the better. We are excited to see where we go next, and are anxious to share our process thus far with others at our Early Learning Institute this summer. We will be sharing more information about that as it becomes available, so stay tuned!