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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

 

 

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I’m an Early Childhood Educator — Is EE for me?

ALL DAY Saturday is for YOU!

 As early childhood educators know, the experiences in the early years continue to shape a person’s identity, ability, and attitudes throughout the rest of their lifetime. According to First Things First, 90% of a child’s brain develops by age 5, and researchers have learned that the human brain develops the vast majority of its neurons, and is most receptive to learning, between birth and three years of age.

As environmental educators–it is imperative we serve the ECE community! Yet, many traditional EE models are simply not developmentally appropriate for young children. Things like discussing deforestation ethics, studying animal population models, or doing invasive species removal are often just too advanced or can trigger feelings of fear and disempowerment in young children. That’s why we wanted to turn our focus towards what the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) deems one of the best methods for teaching & learning in early childhood: PLAY! Recently, NAEYC has turned their attention specifically to nature play. Responding to the national trends, we want to offer you the low-down on the details & best practices for nature play, how to play in Arizona’s unique environment, and how to manage risks and hazards when taking young children outdoors.

We start the day off with Cheryl McCaw, preschool teacher and adjunct faculty at both the Arizona State University and Prescott College. Cheryl will be giving and introduction to nature play–what is it? Why is it important? Along with taking children outside, Cheryl will be talking about how you can bring nature play into your classroom. And, for those of us just starting, with small budgets, limiting locations, or just not enough time, Cheryl has some great tips on how you can take what you’re already doing in your classroom and easily “tweak it” to fit the nature play approach. 

Then we’ll be learning with Melissa Mundt, owner of Garden PlaySpace, certified Permaculture designer, and active gardener from Tucson. As many of us are coming from desert or high desert areas, the endless stories of “forest kindergartens” where kids play in the shade under towering trees and with gushing streams just isn’t cutting it for us. However, Melissa is here to talk about how nature play is alive and well in the desert. She’ll discuss ways young learners can safely explore our arid lands without the fear of spines, stings, scorpions, and snakes and share some really unique models from Tucson. Come explore designs and activities that celebrate our natural desert environment and make nature play possible no matter where you are!

After that we’ll be putting our plans into action with Sarah Foglesong, coordinator of the Early Childhood & Early Childhood Special Education Program at Prescott College and director of the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education. As anyone working with children knows, we spend much of our time somewhere between the “Oh no! You’re gonna get hurt!” and the “Oh wait, you’re fine” moments. Sarah will be sharing tips and concrete tools you can take home for doing risk assessment and hazard management in nature-based settings so you can take your young learners outdoors without all those ups and downs. Sarah defines the difference between a risk and a hazard and discussing how you can allow your students to have healthy perceived risks while still easily preventing real injuries. In her presentation, you will learn how to perform an outdoor risk assessment, manage for hazards, and advocate to your education team about why it’s important to give children the benefits of healthy risky experiences and not just eliminate these from your nature-based or outdoor program.

We wrap up the day with two ECE-focused options for field trips. However, you’re welcome to go on any of the field trips that spark your interest!

The first one is with Nikki Julien, member of AAEE’s Board of Directors and owner of Nature Play Learning

She’ll be taking folks on a tour of the Highlands Center for Natural History and sharing her expertise in both interpretive naturalism (how to use the current landscape to foster learning & connection) as well as nature playscape design. Nikki is a certified playworker, playground inspector, desert landscaper and more! Her unique perspectives and breadth of experience will help you learn how to critically examine an area and envision & actualize projects, dreams, learning, and play anywhere. Nikki believes nature play will save the world, and we agree with her!

The other ECE-focused option is to explore the ways in which various educators have leveraged the power of learning gardens. Thanks to local cooperation between a variety of schools, non-profits, extension offices, and dedicated community members, Prescott is a vibrant hub for learning gardens of all shapes and sizes. Travel around Prescott with NPECE Center director, Sarah Foglesong and see a spectrum of initiatives and learn how gardens & green space can be used as outdoor classrooms that can support developmentally appropriate learning for all the domains! Contemplate the potential for your program’s own spaces and get inspired to get your hands dirty!

See you there!

For more information about ECE at the statewide EE conference contact npece@prescott.edu

To see the conference schedule or to register visit: https://www.arizonaee.org/event/2019-aaee-conference/

The Nature Camp Solution – Why, How, and WOW!

 

Author: Dr. Mariana Altrichter – Photographer: Peter Sherman

As an environmentalist and conservation biologist, I have been growing aware of the lack of interest among the adult population to make daily choices based on the welfare of environment. People seem to know about our pressing environmental issues, but do not translate this knowledge into behavior change. At the same time, as a mother of two young girls, I became more educated of the pervasive effects of screens and the importance of outdoor play for the overall health of children.

I realized that my girls had few opportunities to play outdoors with other kids. In our daily family excursions outdoors, I was surprised by the absence of young teens walking in the woods, biking on mountain trails, kayaking, or playing in the rocks (things that I definitely did when I was that age!). Where are they? I wondered… 

I decided to start a nature-based environmental education program in Prescott to inspire love for our natural world, love for outdoor adventures, and love for biodiversity. If these kids have fun in the woods now, I thought, in a few years from now they will be the teenagers enjoying the woods that I don’t see now; and my daughters will have a community of nature-loving friends.

Nature Camp: “All Children in the Woods” started in October 2014.  My underlying principles that permeate all activities we do in camp are respect and care for nature and each other, cooperation instead of competition, and nature is amazing. I design daily schedules based on a theme (i.e. “trees” or “monsoons” etc.) and follow a loose routine where I mix play, exploration, art, creativity, group games, songs, building, quiet solo time, journaling, and free time. I often bring a book related to the theme to read during quiet time.

 

 

We start with an opening circle where we greet each other and the woods, sing, and play big group games. Then we separate in two age groups: Bobcats 5-7 yrs old and Cougars 8-10 yrs old (although the 7 and 8 yr old kids can choose what group to join). Each group has one or two instructors, called at our camp, “coyotes”.

Each camper creates a special spot which they can decorate, build, and make personal in any way they want. I reduce the number of unnatural things I bring to camp to a minimum: shovels and buckets, toilet paper, bandannas and sometimes a rope. All other activities use only nature. We sit on the ground, eat our lunch on the ground or up in trees, go potty in the woods, play with dirt, pine needles, rocks. Thus, we spend 7 hours in the forest without hearing or seeing human infrastructure other than what we build ourselves.

The “learning” at camp often occurs organically, rather than directed, embedded in everything else. Although I create a schedule by the minute with detailed activities, I tell my “coyotes” that we have to be open to improvise or completely change course based on the children’s lead.

This is the advantage of not being tied to a curricula, or meeting standards. Just keeping the underlying principles, with basic “no hurting feelings, bodies, or nature” rules, the kids have plenty of space, time, and freedom to be creative, imaginative, and playful.

Indeed, often the most amazing, creative, and fun activities have come up spontaneously from the kids (not my detailed program!).  For example, while I was reading a book about settlers developing a town next to a river and polluting it in the process, one of the kids was fidgeting with the dirt and moving sticks and pebbles around. Although I was a little annoyed that he was “distracting the group away from my reading” I allowed him to continue and by the end of the book he said, “Look, I am building here a settlement where people and nature live together. Do you want to help me?”.

This became the most epic group building cooperative project ever! The whole day they built homes, created miniature forest among the houses, made lakes and rivers, built a “community center,” all while talking, negotiating, deciding as a group, cooperating. I was at the verge of tears the whole time, feeling, “This is it; this is magical!”

Since I started this program, we have had about 190 days in the forest and about 300 children have participated. Several of the older kids who “graduated” from camp have been coming back as helpers. They help the younger group and provide excellent role models as respectful, caring and outdoors-loving preteens.

As a college educator, I also recognize the importance of hands-on experiential education for students. Thus, I opened this camp to Prescott College students who want to participate in any way: as an independent study, for a senior projects, for a course assignments, or just for gaining experience. Many classes have done field trips with their students to visit Nature Camp. All my instructors are or were college students who became interested in working at my camp after being introduced to it in one way or another. Some of them are now elementary or college teachers, bringing to their jobs the conviction of the importance of nature-based environmental education.

To learn more about Nature Camp: All Children in the Woods or to reach Dr. Altrichter, check out Educational Expeditions’ Facebook page — Observation, internship, and volunteer opportunities are always available!

 

 

 

Is that even STEM?! Early EE & Nature Play

Before the buckets of sticks, branch cross-cuts, rocks, shells, moss, and more were even unpacked the children tiptoed in. As if drawn by an unseen magnetic force, tiny hands reached for the sticks, “tree cookies”, and shells, and we heard the excited question again and again and again, “Are these real?!

Earlier in the month AAEE teamed up with the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education to host an early childhood environmental education & STEM space at the Children’s Learning & Play Festival in Scottsdale. We shared the space with many great organizations, including the lead organizer, The Museum of Science and Sustainability (MoSS). We loaded up a truck with nature’s loose parts of all kinds, some paints and brushes, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. 400+ children, 300+ tree cookies, a couple gallons of paint, and 7 hours of laughter later, we realized parents and early childhood educators alike deeply agree: we need more nature play.

 

But why nature play?

Why tree cookies?

Is that even STEM?

Is that even EE?

We’re glad you asked!

 

 

 

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and is a concept stemming (ha!) from a nationwide push to increase proficiency in these subjects through integrative and innovative approaches. Increasingly, environmental education is seen as one of the best approaches to achieving STEM goals in the United States. STEM for older children can be anything from water quality monitoring to building solar panels. However, STEM & EE in the early years look very different.

At AAEE we always promote developmentally appropriate practice, which is educational practice based on research about how young children learn and develop. Developmentally appropriate early EE & STEM may take the shape of open-ended and inquiry-based explorations or simply playing in and with nature. This might be creating towers or fairy worlds with loose parts, building forts, decorating story stones, making mud soup, watching bugs, or caring for a garden. These simple practices give young children the opportunity to ask questions, test hypothesis, discover the fundamentals of disciplines such as physics or ecology, build early literacy and numeracy skills, and so much more.

Early EE and nature-based STEM learning can also combat the growing concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). NDD is not a medical term, but a useful phrase to describe the effects we experience from our increasing disconnect with the natural world, including decreased use of the senses, attention issues, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and indifference towards the natural world.

Play in and with nature is an easy remedy and there are many resources to help parents and educators make a real difference in their children’s lives. For starters, check out AAEE’s Early Childhood Environmental Education resource page, download a free copy of the NAAEE Early Childhood EE Guidelines for Excellence, or visit the website our national early EE partner the Natural Start Alliance.

You can also stay tuned to our blog and subscribe to our newsletter! In response to the growing field of early childhood EE, early STEM, nature play, nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and more, AAEE will be partnering with the Natural Start Alliance to increase advocacy and resources for the field here in Arizona. Look for upcoming blogs on topics such as What is Early Childhood EE? Nature Play & the latest research on Nature-based Learning, Nature Play in the Indoor Classroom, Nature Play in the Desert, and more!

 

If you want to join the conversation and help us advocate for early EE and nature play in Arizona  comment and let us know or follow us on Facebook; we love hearing from you!