Written by: Kai Dickinson, Ellis Hollow Nursery School
I have always been drawn to outdoor learning where the natural world invites children to experience serendipitous and endless child centered play. I was one of those children; catching frogs while muddying up long dresses, sticky summer days splashing in Skaneateles Lake, picking grapes that exploded sweetness from the ripe fall sun. I was that child in the dead winter freeze who never wanted to come in for supper because I was too busy catching a feast of snowflakes on my tongue. Today the nature deficit saddens me; where are our forests, our neighborhoods, our right to play? The children have gone inside.
As a teacher of young children I wanted to give my preschoolers the experience of immersive outdoor play, not just a half an hour at the end of each session. Every Wednesday in our five day a week, three hours a day preschool we would be outside in the elements: the sun, rain, snow and sleet. We name it “Wild Weather Wednesday.” It was a commitment and perhaps a distant longing. It was a process, my co-teacher and I waded through being in charge of sixteen little souls. How do we keep our sign in sheet dry, the kids warm, how do we pack up snacks, water and a million incidentals? Learn by doing, trial by error, good days and days built by grit, for us and the children.
Somehow we endured and our days outside became more meaningful than our days between four walls. Our learning was rich and our senses sharpened. Individual bodies, too small to carry giant logs alone, discovered independently they could roll them together to their delight. The children discovered how to build bridges, forts and how to make logs into seesaws. We saw life cycles, gravity and yes, cause and effect. Children and nature lead the learning while we observe their mighty minds.
Our class was gelled by the time the sugar bush whispered through the trees, “run sap run!” The great manifestation: the running sugars sustain us. We experienced cooperation, problem solving, and the use of our bodies in ways we didn't think possible. We were enamored by nature and each other.
A slip on the ice walking my family’s beloved fifteen year old labradoodle sent me away from bliss to surgery. Six screws and a steel plate in my left wrist and months of recovery to go. When I returned to the classroom, humbled, and broken, COVID-19 swept through our streets, cities and communities. Now under the Governor's order it was time to shut down, into silence, isolation and the unknown. Depressed, discouraged, trudging through. Pulling myself up by proverbial bootstraps, I needed to continue with these young connections, made now by a virtual world, far, far away from the woods.
What were we going to do? Then my steadfast friend and co-teacher, stumbled upon the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools. Could we afford it? Did we have the right credentials to be included? Was it the right fit for us and our program? Could we possibly turn everyday into Wild Weather Wednesday in a New York snow belt? Could the woods be our sanctuary while we waited COVID-19 out? It seemed daunting, but safer and healthier for us all.
I began my summer of isolation, online, enrolled in a nature education program. Counter intuitive, I know! Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools however, restored me, and helped me to remember who I once was and who I still am! ERAFANS gave me not only practical skills and a plethora of resources, it also gave me a community of like minded mentors and colleagues. Someone at ERAFANS said to us, “Once you go entirely out, you’ll never want to go back in!” I feel this now with my young students. The plan to become an outdoor school during COVID-19 may have just been the impetus to to leave our four walls behind. Being part of ERARANS gave me the validation and tools to do so.
It is September now, and here in New York the maples are starting to drip with red, the ganders of geese bid their farewell, and the spotted salamander blankets himself with leaves. The children run smiling and giggling bundled in polypropylene and wool, school has resumed. Already, after a couple weeks of school I am experiencing the great joy and freedom the children are experiencing. At our closing gratitude circle a young girl spoke “I’m sad we have Covid in the world but I'm grateful I get to be in the woods with other kids!” Another child spoke, “I am grateful for the trees, because now I know how much they do for us.” The curiosity and the learning is strong. To others the children may look like they are “just playing.” but I know it is so much more.
Over the years, I have worked in all kinds of classrooms with different philosophies and teaching styles. In teacher directed environments I have found children can resort to an array of behaviors. I have witnessed disinterest, lack of focus, boredom, restlessness and even aggression. Emergent nature based curriculum on the other hand is patient, observant, communicative, collaborative and kind. It embodies seeing the world though the child's eyes and embracing their vision.
Children are self motivated by their own curiosity and then learning happens through playful exploration and expression. As a teacher it entails a keen mind and a creative connection to expand their interest. This kind of learning can be a moment during the day like, allowing a child to trail blaze up a hill of bramble, leading the way with confidence or other times it takes flight; a small bug, manifests into songs, plays, costumes, stories, and an entomologist gracing us with stick bugs, honey bees and praying mantises.
Emergent, nature-based curriculum is spontaneous, serendipitous, and resourceful. A joyful innocent learning that is gently cradled in a teachers arms. My “job” continues to cultivate the fertile soil of the minds and hearts of children. I hope to pass along the generational seeds of kindness, empathy and stewardship for each other and for our beloved Earth. I welcome this great responsibility and hope it withstands the test of time. I have found I am not alone. I have met many new friends among this path; sharing tools, sustenance and wisdom. I am hopeful that our toil and love will take root.
Kai Dickinson is a co-teacher at Ellis Hollow Nursery School in Ithaca, NY. She currently holds a level 1 Nature-Based Teacher Certification with the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools.