Last week I took my kids to the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, MA. It’s this enchanting place in the woods with a children’s garden complete with wood carved statues, chickens, owls, a music trail, and a storybook walk. You can take a peek here.
And the best part – all the outside areas are free! I had been waiting for a beautiful day to take the kids and Thursday was it: 70°F, sunny, no wind for the first time in weeks. Literacy and music in the woods – we had to go.
When we first arrived there were lots of children playing outside. We went to look at the chicken coop, turned around, and they had all disappeared! I knew from the website that there were no shows scheduled and then I remembered. The SSNSC has a nature preschool!
I had wondered exactly what made nature preschool, well, ‘nature’ preschool. A fellow intern in my senior internship raved about her nature preschool placement site. She said it completely changed how she thought about education and nature. So what makes it so great?
Well while we were there I got a peek. My kids love owls so even though the music trail and storybook walk were calling me, we went on an owl hunt. Armed with a map and the receptionist’s directions, we set out with my four year old leading the way. His newly developing concept of left and right combined with budding map skills were really coming in handy.
As we walked we knew we were getting close to the owl, but there was something loud and boisterous in our way. A mass playing of children! They skipped, they flitted around with scarves, they climbed rocks. They sang, they danced, and screamed. And on each end of the clearing, teachers stood as sentries making sure no one wandered too far from the group. I knew I had found the preschool.
“Permission to pass through?” I asked one of the sentry teachers.
She looked confused for a moment before laughing and answering, “Of Course!”.
My children and I clasped hands as we waded through the mass. Groups of children ran up and talked to us as we walked.
“I’m a preschooler!” cried one little girl.
“We’re playing with scarves!” another one said.
“Chase me!” invited one boy. These children were bold and unafraid.
I was grateful that the owl enclosure was close because it afforded me the opportunity to watch the nature school without being in the way.
The first thing I noticed was that the teachers weren’t huddled together chatting, nor were they standing aloof observing the children. There wasn’t a cell phone in sight. Every single teacher, even the sentry teachers had a crowd of children around her and they were talking about everything nature.
One teacher was looking for bird nests with a group of girls. “Do you remember what nests are made of Chloe?”
Another teacher was talking with a boy who tried to follow us to the owl enclosure. My children reported to him that the owl was sleeping since he wasn’t allowed to come look for himself. “Yes, that’s because owls are noc-tern-nal. That starts with letter N,” She stressed the N sound here. “Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and wake up at night,” the teacher explained after the boy’s look of surprise.
Concept development was happening anywhere there was a teacher! This outside time was not just recess. The teachers saw it as learning time and treated it as such. Nature was the central topic, but through nature children were accessing literacy and math.
I also noticed that they brought many typical indoor classroom items outside. There were blocks, easels for painting, and tables that were clearly for lunch time. Perhaps my favorite thing were the 5 gallon buckets full of books. The buckets had lids and were labeled with a laminated page on the outside of what books the bucket contained. This particular bucket had age appropriate books that related directly to what children were seeing outside. There were books about clouds, trees, birds, bugs, and owls. Next to the bucket was a picnic blanket for children to spread out and read on. I can just imagine children reading The Little Cloud and then laying down on the blanket and looking up at the clouds in the sky. Talk about bringing stories to life!
When the preschoolers went inside, I was finally able to convince my kids to go on the story walk with me. We were joined after a little while by one of the preschool boys and his mom. She was kind enough to tell me a little about the program and why she chose a nature preschool for her son.
“I just love the freedom that they give the children,” She said. “He is always so happy when I pick him up and even at the parent curriculum night it was like aaaah! This is so perfect!”
Ok, not the most explanatory statement, but the gist I got from the rest of what she said, was that the children are given lots of freedom to explore nature and academics at their own pace. The environment is rich for them to explore and the teachers are very supportive of each child. They really help children to appreciate nature in the world around them.
It’s interesting to me that this is a priority to so many parents in this city dominated area. My husband and I decided that we wanted to raise outdoorsy children because we love the outdoors. We want to share our hobbies with our kids. But I have observed that even parents who are don’t particularly want to be in the outdoors themselves, love this idea that their children will enjoy nature. Do people realize that they’re missing something important from their own lives and want to give it to their children? Or do they realize that the next generation needs to value nature in order for them to care for their resources better than we have?
I don’t have the answers, but I do believe it is a good trend regardless of parent’s reasons, because I do believe that nature is important to our happiness as people. And I do believe that without a lot of nature’s bounty we will never learn to care for it.
I would love to find out more about curriculum planning at nature preschools. This mom made it sound like the children normally have indoor class time too. Oh, it’d be wonderful to be a fly on the wall during this time!
I’ll definitely be exploring this idea of nature school more. I don’t have a forest to bring my FCC kids to, but if I could even bring pieces of nature preschool into my home, it might inspire a greater love of nature for children in my program. And who knows? Maybe one day I will have a forest for my preschoolers to explore!
Take a look below to see the discoveries from our visit!