By AAEE Member & Volunteer: Diona Williams
I am a full-time Early Childhood Education Professor a few days out of the week at a Tribal Community College called Tohono O’odham. However, I have worked with children birth to age 8 for the last 17 plus years in many different capacities. My career has allowed me to work as an Infant/Toddler Mental Health Clinician II (behavioral health), Arizona Early Intervention Program, and CHILD Find Team/Public Educator as an Early Childhood Special Teacher.
What inspired me to open Out Back Learning LLC is truly my desire to grow my knowledge in the profession in Early Childhood Education and discover new and innovative ways to work with young children. I had an opportunity to attend a conference a year and a half ago at Prescott College, where I was able to learn about Nature-based Place and Play in Early Childhood Education. I was so inspired by the movement that I implemented the ideas and knowledge with my students the following school year, which led to gardening and outdoor lessons. I decided to leave public education to pursue higher education and to start this Nature-based Preschool Program. I love teaching college students about Early Childhood Education, but I absolutely love working with young children and families. The program is a passion project, but I have witnessed first hand how children can benefit from outdoor nature-based preschools.
Offering a Nature-Based preschool in the desert is unique from the typical nature-based and forest schools in the northwest, northeast, and midwest programs, because the desert environment is so different. In the desert we have everything from giant mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus & their fruit, to the scorpions & poisonous spiders.
So, how do the Out Backers survive the desert?
In Out Back Learning I have discovered the beauty of nature in a different way with my students, also known as the Out Backers. For instance, one day the Out Backers discovered the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant has seed pods, and they could create, count, snap, build, and grow seeds. However, this plant has led to many other discussions beyond that. One example would be, when Leo asked, “Why do we not water this plant, but we water the jalapeno plant?” Or, when Isaac wondered, “Why does this plant have so many seed pods?”. This plant has led to even more conversations about pollinators, the importance of bees, and why butterflies hang out by the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant.
Life in Out Back Learning also gives the Out Backers an opportunity to take nature walks daily, even in the desert! I remember the first time the Out Backers took a nature walk, and we learned the importance of signs, landmarks, and directions. Now, the nature walks take twice as long because the Out Backers have discovered the wonders of every part of nature such as the pine needles, different rock varieties, flowers, leaves, cacti, etc.
Out Back Learning LLC also offers gardening opportunities for the Out Backers in the fall and spring, another easy way to connect with nature in the desert. Our fall garden currently has corn, herbs, cabbage, strawberries, jalapeno, cucumber, tomatoes, and sunflowers.
Every Monday the Out Backers get to harvest any item from the garden that they like to eat, take home, or cook. There are so many ways for young learners to safely play in and with nature in a desert environment. Knowing there are so many benefits to spending time in nature and nature-based learning & play, it’s important that we give all learners these opportunities, no matter what environment they’re growing up in!