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2015 Early Learning Institute

2015 Early Learning Institute: Day One

June 5th, 2015 brought a little over 100 participants and tons of exciting sessions to the inaugural Early Learning Institute. The morning began with registration and tour sign ups, as well as getting acclimated with the conference program and L&N Station. Participants enjoyed coffee while getting to know one another. Several people commented on the good energy they could feel pulsing through the building- conference organizers felt it too! We loved seeing people network and engage with the Hawkins exhibit while waiting for sessions to begin.

Session blocks began with a variety of topics and rooms were packed! We were so pleased to see so many people with so much excitement about the morning ahead. Session topics spanned age ranges and interests including sessions about kindergarten science inquiry, using looms to build community in toddler classrooms, documentation, toddlers in the woods, connecting literacy and gardening, among others. The morning sessions were a success!

The afternoon brought more in depth, thought provoking sessions. Participants attended sessions by both ELC educators and presenters from a variety of backgrounds and organizations. Some sessions were outdoors, making use of the natural spaces around the L&N Station. Session topics included project work with preschoolers, building community with families, gardening with infants and toddlers, birding with young children, building a sensory garden with families for infants/toddlers, nature-based lesson planning, and more!

After the two afternoon sessions, we made our way to the keynote address at the World’s Fair Park Amphitheater. Richard Louv delivered a talk called The Human Right to Connect with the Natural World: How Children, Families, Schools, and Communities Can Build Nature-Rich Lives for a Nature-Rich Future.

Louv shared recent research in the field as well as what we can all be doing to help advance efforts in creating a nature-rich future for the next generation. He spoke highly of a few programs currently underway that  not only support children’s interest in nature, but native plant and animal/insect development. He shared about a program the National Parks Service is launching to get every fourth grader and their families into a National Park. After the talk, Mr. Louv took questions from the audience and then signed books.

The energy amongst the crowd at the end of the first day was contagious and we were ready for day two!

2015 Early Learning Institute: Day Two

Day two of the ELI brought school and garden tours along with more sessions from a variety of presenters. The morning began with some delicious snacks which were provided by the lovely parents of the Early Learning Center! We were so grateful to have so many willing volunteers. It was really amazing to see our little community band together to make something as complex as the Institute happen.

The tours were an excellent way for participants to see how some of the concepts they were exploring in sessions work in real life. Teachers were available to field questions and explain how their daily life has been affected by big changes in their practice to more fully embrace nature-based learning. Documentation filled the walls of many classrooms and public spaces, which were frequently explored by institute-goers.

There were three tours going on during the first session of tours: The ELC at White Avenue, The ELC at Lake Avenue, and the UT Gardens. On the first tour at White Avenue, our recently redesigned natural playscape was particularly interesting to visitors. Vicky Flessner was onsite to answer questions about our new water and sand feature that she helped to design and implement. Visitors had the opportunity to engage with the spaces, often choosing to be very hands-on and explore the areas as the children do.

Visitors conferred with ELC teachers and administrators about their concerns, wishes and hopes for their own spaces and nature-based curriculum. There was plenty of time on the tours for visitors to explore the spaces at the ELC while also having time to ask questions and exchange thoughts and ideas. The ELC teachers remarked about how helpful to them it was to share their experiences with others. We believe reflection is a very valuable tool in growing and developing as educators and this was one more opportunity for us to do that while also helping others get some ideas and inspiration to take back to their own schools.

Visitors were encouraged to take lots of pictures of spaces and materials. We are hoping that these visual reminders of things that work well for us could work in a variety of classrooms. Many conference attendees said that the tours gave them inspiration for going back and making some simple changes in their classrooms right away, which is so inspiring for us!

The tours at Lake Avenue included explorations of our infant, toddler and one preschool classroom along with the ever changing natural playscape there. Visitors got an up close look at the Sensory Garden, which was a focus of one of Friday’s sessions. An educator from a local preschool mentioned that she enjoyed getting to spend more time with the presenters in the space that inspired their presentations.

Tours of the UT Gardens included options for tour goers- an in depth look at the Kitchen Garden or a general tour of the garden spaces. Participants that opted for the specific Kitchen Garden tour got helpful information about beginning their own gardens, even on a very small scale. Attendees reported that the information she shared was helpful, insightful, and the spaces were inspiring. Each attendee was given an artichoke straight from the soil at the gardens to take back for their own gardens, which was a nice bonus!

General garden tourists were treated to lots of information about the different types of plants the gardens have growing and how to incorporate those into their own spaces. Derrick Stowell shared about the new Tranquility Garden and some of the experimental gardens they have right now and how they are using those for education.

The afternoon of day two included a yummy lunch from the Lunch Box and a general session from Jeanne Goldhaber and Dee Smith. Their session highlighted the experience of a group of toddlers and their teachers that spent much of their summer in the woods. Jeanne and Dee shared about the experiences from the perspectives of the children, teachers and families involved. Children had a wide variety of experiences in the woods and came upon several challenges with their peers and teachers, but overall adored their time in the woods. It was interesting to hear about an experience that is so different than a typical toddler classroom experience. It made many ELC educators wish we had a forest right outside our school!

We are already looking forward to next summer and are ready to think about all of the wonderful and overwhelmingly positive feedback from our participants. We are so proud of the first Early Learning Institute and grateful to the many participants, presenters, volunteers and educators that made the conference such a success! Our goal is to create an annual Institute that will connect, inspire, and encourage a variety of educators and will continue to be focused on nature-based learning. We hope you will join us!