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A Nature-Based Preschool in the Desert?! You Bet!

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!

You can follow the Out Backers’ adventures on their Facebook page and their Instagram @outbacklearning2019

 

 

Do you want your program featured in AAEE’s newsletter, on our website, & on our social media platforms? Contact us on our Facebook page, Instagram @EEinArizona, or comment on this article!

Don’t Miss These Field Trips!

Thinking about coming to the 2019 statewide Environmental Education conference? I sure am! Although I love a good presentation, as an experiential learner, I also love getting out into a community and seeing real models that WORK! I know AAEE has put a lot of time into collaborating with local educational, recreational, environmental, outdoor, institutions & business to pull together an amazing set of field trips. Since each field trip will have a limited number of spaces (for example, finding 130 kayaks turned out to be impossible!) — I wanted to make sure you had a chance to get to know the locations & options so you can be sure to sign up for the field trip you want most before it fills.

Watson Lake & the Granite Dells

Just 4 miles from Prescott, located in the heart of the Granite Dells, this beautiful lake is an oasis to escape the desert heat. This grey-blue lake is surrounded by rolling pink granite boulders, and is a vital part of the Granite Creek riparian corridor and an important migratory bird stopover. The 380 acres of park contain stunning rock formations, secret inlets with a myriad of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects to admire, and small islands to pause upon and soak in the view. Bring sunscreen, a hat, clothing that can get wet, sturdy shoes, and your binoculars for the ultimate paddling experience at Watson Lake! NOTE: this trip costs an extra $30 to participate.

Learning Gardens

Thanks to amazing cooperation between a variety of schools, non-profits, extension offices, and dedicated community members, Prescott is a vibrant hub for learning gardens. Ranging from native gardens to outdoor classrooms to food production gardens, come see some ways in which outdoor areas have been transformed into learning spaces for all ages. See a spectrum of initiatives and learn how gardens can be used as outdoor classrooms that align with learning objectives for all subjects. Contemplate the potential for your program’s own spaces and get inspired to get your hands dirty!

Natural History Institute

The Natural History Institute provides leadership and resources for a revitalized practice of natural history that integrates art, science, and humanities to promote the health and well-being of humans and the rest of the natural world. Located in downtown Prescott in a beautifully restored historic building, the Institute provides a fascinating array of educational opportunities such as in-house explorations of their thousands of preserved plants (over 9,000 in the herbarium alone!) as well as insects and birds, visual & performance art installations, and unique community field trips around the state that provide creative and engaging environmental education to participants of all ages. The Natural History Institute is dedicated to changing the way we view our evolutionary relationship with the world around us and will inspire anyone who strives to connect others to our world’s unique and irreplaceable natural wonders.

Highlands Center for Natural History

Immersed in the beautiful Prescott National Forest near Lynx Lake, the Highlands Center for Natural History is a Prescott nature center, a hub for lifelong learning, and designed to invite discovery of the wonders of nature. This field trip is lead by interpretive specialist and nature play space designer, Nikki Julien. See how the Highlands Center has worked with their landscape to create interactive spaces such as the James Family Discovery Gardens and kept the focus on inclusive & accessible design. Their programs range from Arthropalooza, to Shakespeare in the Pines, Knee-High Naturalists, naturalist certification classes, and more. Nikki will guide you through the beautiful ponderosa forests of Prescott, and help you think about your landscapes and the ways in which you can design & interpret for better engagement with learners of all ages.

Heritage Park Zoo

Summer Zoo Camp 2016 - Wallabies 5Situated on ten acres north of Prescott and overlooking the Granite Dells & Willow Lake, the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary has a wide variety of opportunities for visitors. HPZS is a non-profit wildlife sanctuary, dedicated to the conservation and protection of native and exotic animals. The sanctuary provides a source of recreation, education, and entertainment for all ages, especially with their large, naturally landscaped enclosures for the animals, interactive paths, daily programming, special events, and camps. With the mission of “Conservation through Education,” Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary provides a unique and up-close experience with animals that visitors may see nowhere else. Animals at Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary all have a story and a lesson to teach so come by and learn the story of a small sanctuary making a big difference in their community.

Embry-Riddle Planetarium

Located in the grasslands nearing Granite Mountain, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University does STEM right. Integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into all their degree programs, they have recently been focused on expanding their community offerings and providing increased engagement with their STEM Center & Planetarium for all ages. Their STEM Educational Center and the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium host field trips, community education events, and tours of the universe through year-round planetarium shows such as Tour of the Solar System and 46.5 Billion Light Years. Check out their incredible spaces and get inspired with new ways to grow the whole STEM in your environmental education program.

See you there!

For more information on the conference, including the schedule outline & registration, visit: https://www.arizonaee.org/event/2019-aaee-conference/