Recently I was asked to speak at a gathering of early learning providers about the availability of nature programs in York Region. I will be reporting both good news and bad news. Starting with the bad, I will relate that to the best of my knowledge, most outdoor education centres in our area focus on older children but I will let them know about the Kortright Centre and their forest school programs as one option. The pickings are slim but the good news is that it is easy to plan your own nature programs in early childhood education. It involves a three part planning process. Find nature. Add children. Mix. The end result will be happy children.
Early learners do not need elaborate programming. They need time to run in a field, roll down a hill, splash in a puddle, discover what’s under a rock, dip nets into a pond, use a magnifying glass to look closely at nature’s miracles – the trees, flowers and so much more. They can take photos of what they see. They can sketch and draw their own interpretations. They can throw rocks in the water, build with rocks, and count rocks. They can be very quiet and listen to the awesome sounds of nature – the birds, the crickets and the wind blowing through the trees. They can hunt and gather pine cones and other assorted natural found materials. The key is to find nature in your own communities and go back to that place over and over again. When you spend time with in a safe, woodsy playground, they will naturally, according to David Sobel, author of Children and Nature (2008):
- Make forts and special places
- Play hunting and gathering games
- Shape small worlds
- Develop friendships with animals
- Construct adventures
- Descend into fantasies
- Follow paths and figure out shortcuts
A few weeks ago, I had the profound pleasure of showing two preschoolers and their moms one of my favourite places, Lake St. George, in Richmond Hill. This is a place that the York Region Nature Collaborative has had meetings and has held workshops. With nothing pre-planned, we followed the children’s interests and directions. Aubrey and Cole immediately started running when we approached an empty field. The exuberance was infectious. Their joy obviously apparent.
They collected pine cones and we counted how many we had. They had fun throwing them back onto the forest floor. When Cole picked up a stick, it became his guitar, as he strummed and sang his song, it showed the power of a child’s imagination and the versatility of the stick. Sticks are nature’s toy and children for centuries have been using them in wondrous ways.
When we turned over a log to look at what wonders we could discover, Cole needed a bit of prompting to use a stick to find a worm but I was happy to show him how easy they are to find! As we picked up the worm so gently with the stick, the children had an experience with caring for their environment. The more experiences they have, they more connections they will make, learning to love all nature’s creatures.
As we left the wooden area, we came upon the sloped hill just above the lake. After we had discovered the worm, played with sticks and collected pine cones, I approached the hill with great anticipation of seeing the children run or roll down. The immediate reaction of their mothers was to pick them up as they were worried about the children falling or getting dirty. Next time, with an extra set of clothes and some good rubber boots, I think we will run/roll down the hill. I think we will end up wading into the lake to feel the clay beneath our feet and get up close to the ducks as they swim by. Time spent in nature is well spent. No programming required. Let the children experience the joys and the safe risks that it has to offer. Children deserve it and nature wants it.