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2016 Early Learning Institute

The staff at the Early Learning Institute was thrilled to prepare for and host the 2016 Early Learning Institute. In the second year of preparing for the conference, the teachers at the ELC noted that while nature-based initiatives were still a major focus of their work, teachers were also working to think deeply about creating curriculum centered around children’s interests. The expert in the area of fostering children’s authentic inquiry led the ELC team to Dr. Lilian Katz. While the educators at the Early Learning Center were very familiar with Dr. Katz’s work, they dove deeper into her extensive writing on the subject of inquiry and project work.

Dr. Katz was chosen as the keynote speaker for the 2016 Early Learning Institute as her commitment to advocating for the importance of robust, authentic curriculum based on children’s inquiry for and with children is something the teachers at the ELC connected with. Dr. Katz opened the conference with an inspiring talk and then shared some of her favorite projects from her career. She was a delight – hilarious, thoughtful, and full of wisdom. We were told this talk was amongst the last of her public speaking engagements and we are so grateful that she agreed to join us.

There was a great variety of sessions by ELC educators and experts in the field of nature-based learning and early childhood education. Below are a sampling of sessions offered this year:

Age Group Title Description
Infants/Toddlers The Language of Light A three-year journey of incorporating light into an infant/toddler classroom and curriculum will be shared. Participants will explore a variety of light sources that were used with the children throughout the experience.
Toddlers Did You Notice That?

A teaching team’s approach to slowing down and looking closer

This session will focus on the many languages that children use to represent their knowledge and how a teaching team’s practice has evolved to better notice the natural ways that their children learn.  The teachers will share details from actual work in the classroom and how focusing on stepping back to observe more and teach less has resulted in authentic discoveries.
Preschool “Why don’t our plants grow like theirs?”

A Project Emerges

This is the story of how the presentation of a problem to a small group of children invigorated their sense of ownership and control over their garden. Throughout this work the children engaged in collaboration and problem solving as they implemented components of the scientific process; hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis.
Preschool Experiencing the Outdoors: A journey with preschoolers Throughout the past year, we have embarked on a journey to spend more times outdoors with our preschoolers. During this presentation, we will share our journey as we have partnered with the preschoolers to embrace our outdoor environment.
Preschool The Touching Rock Museum: Curating a love for learning This presentation follows a group of four- and five-year-old children as they design, build, and utilize a museum of rocks. We pay close attention to the children’s natural inclination to include mathematics in their work and the teachers’ facilitation and support of these mathematical explorations using inspirations from the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy and Frances and David Hawkins.
Kindergarten Outside In: How outdoor discoveries influence kindergarten curriculum Taking time to observe what children do outdoors is crucial to our curriculum. Journey with us as we share how abundant outdoor time in kindergarten gave the children opportunities to make important discoveries. In turn, the seemingly “unstructured” outdoor time became the basis of our science curriculum.
All Pretend Play, Brain Growth, and Outdoor Learning The role of outdoor play and interactions in nature greatly impact brain and overall development throughout the early years. Join Sally as she looks at the supporting role of the natural environment in the development of executive function, and explores our role in providing optimal experiences for each stage of growth!
To see the complete program with all sessions and descriptions, click here! 

With such a variety of compelling sessions, participants had trouble choosing which sessions to attend! There were engaging conversations being had in each session with presenters helping participants think about how the topics covered in the session relate to their practice. It was a meaningful morning full of learning and connection.

Tours of the Early Learning Center sites and the UT Gardens were available in addition to sessions. During tours, participants were encouraged to explore the classrooms and playscapes and ask the ELC staff about the materials in their classrooms and the documentation available to view. We heard educators sharing ideas about gardening with very young children, how to keep project work going, and how environmental design makes such a big impact in a toddler classroom. It was encouraging to see educators connecting with one another and sharing ideas.

This year, the ELC staff wanted to be sure we had a clear closing of the conference. Dr. Mary Jane Moran helped kick off our closing event with an empowering message of the importance of the work we do with young children. Participants and ELC staff members engaged in dialogue with one another about their major takeaways from the weekend and what they hoped to hang on to when they got back to their schools. We shared those ideas on Twitter with the hashtag #eliknoxville if you want to check them out! It was a wonderful way to close our time together.

We are already working on next year’s ELI and hope that you will join us June 2-3, 2017!