In PreK, we consider the grounds of BCD part of our classroom: being in nature does so much for the soul. There are numerous ways being in nature is beneficial so I will focus on the two most important to me as a teacher of younger children.
The first is, it improves creativity and complex thought. There are no toys, dolls, markers, blocks, magna-tiles or Legos in nature. When we are out exploring the campus we find branches, rocks, dried leaves, moss, bark, and more, that nature gives us. In Reggio-inspired classes, we call these “loose parts,” undefined ingredients and pieces that rely onthe creativity of the children to “become” something. Letting PreK play in the woods provides endless opportunities for inventions, experiments, and collaboration. They make sticks into fishing rods, collect and add large sticks to the 8- foot nest they are creating, pretend branches are horses— we even found a fallen tree that was balanced on another fallen tree and made a seesaw!
The children are constantly making observations about their world. “This sand is heavier because it is wet,” “The seesaw works better if there are three kids on my side and the other side,” “The leaves in the stream float until they get really, really wet. Then they sink.” This play works the frontal lobes of their ever growing brain and helps develop more complex thinking, which they’ve used this year and will continue to expand as they move through the grades at school.
The second thing that nature has been proven to do is that it improves behavior and social interactions. The more time we spend in the woods at “our nest” and exploring the numerous paths and streams (even a beautiful waterfall!), the fewer disagreements I see between friends. Out in nature, the group has to work together to move big branches or to get up a muddy hill. They may sit quietly and watch the fish or search for worms together to save them from drying out. Whatever it is, the children are working together to reach a common goal. The more time we spend outside the happier and more connected the class becomes.
We are lucky to have BCD’s 27 acres, with trails, a pond, a garden, fields, and plenty of play areas, where we can reap the benefits of all nature can do for children. While we go outside in our snowpants and boots during the winter, the recent warm days have made us all the more excited about exploring the signs of spring. Our most recent activity was welcoming the frogs back to our pond and collecting some eggs so we could observe them—and the tadpoles that will soon be here—for “science” class and in our science journals.
In these final weeks of school, we’ll be taking the opportunity to spend even more time outside, we can’t wait for our next discovery!
Early childhood educators love the word “Wonder.” We talk about a child’s sense of wonder and cultivating that wonder. Books have been written on “The Wonder Years,” and we have famously labeled four year olds as “Wild and Wonderful.” Indeed, every day this wonder in young children — in the form of a ladybug found on the gym floor, a prism rainbow on the wall, newly formed ice on a puddle, the gurgling of water under a grate — sustains us in our work with young children. Our B2’s wonder is contagious!
In Hawaii …
Over our Spring Break, I was again so fortunate to be able to travel to a far-away land, this time across the Pacific Ocean for two weeks on the islands of Hawaii. Each day brought new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds, from volcanoes, geckos, and sea turtles, to Kalhili Ginger, fresh Mahi-Mahi and Ono fish, tree frog peeps surrounding us through the night, and bamboo groves rattling in the breeze. For two weeks, I floated in what I will always remember as a “Wonder Bliss.”
One day I had a little revelation about Wonder that seemed especially relevant to my work with young children. I had driven 1.5 miles over lava rock, on what could barely be called a road, in order to get to an oasis of a beach we had read about in our guide book. At the end of this bumpy primitive road, we were surprised to find a parking lot full of cars, and many people lugging picnics and towels, just as we did.
As we ate, I watched a couple of young men snorkeling in a cove near our picnic table. Clearly, they had been at it for a while — wearing full wet suits with various straps and gear attached. After a while, they emerged with a few octopuses hanging from their belts! Before they emerged, I had seen them shed their wet suit shirts and spend several minutes floating and snorkeling in the very shallow reef water. They had been on a fishing expedition, but I didn’t realize until I myself got into the water why they had been hanging out for so long in that cove.
I was hot, so I put on my prescription swim goggles and ventured into that water. It was cold and wonderful, so I dunked down. I was immediately surprised and rewarded with three bright yellow fish with black stripes! Wow! I dunked again, and spotted black and white ones! Again, and I saw a large and shimmering blue-green fish. I kept floating and dunking, finding more and more. I lost count of how many different varieties of fish lived there in that little cove. A rainbow of colors, a full spectrum of geometric patterns of all sizes! This silent underwater world absorbed me completely. And I had discovered it!
After some time, I left the water to tell my husband about the great surprise I had found. I was absolutely thrilled. But I was also chilled, so I covered myself up with hat and big shirt, and went for a walk down the beach to dry off. I headed towards another cove in the distance that intrigued me. Having to choose between hot lava rock, hot sand, and stony water on my bare feet, I was looking down a lot — so until I was about 30 feet away, I didn’t notice an enormous creature lying on the sand! It was certainly as large as a baby elephant!
From my research afterwards, I learned that this monstrous creature was a Hawaiian Monk Seal. These are endangered, and there are only about 1500 of them left on earth. I also learned that they come onto the beach in order to give birth — which was almost certainly why I saw this one there on that lovely beach. And when I told my husband about it, I was not exaggerating — they do weigh hundreds of pounds (even when not pregnant).
So what does all of this have to do with young children? This day on the beach reminded me that the thing that makes wonder even more joyfully intense and memorable is the element of surprise, and the sense of having discovered something oneself. When I dunked down into that reef water, I had never been snorkeling before, and I had absolutely no idea that I would see all of those tropical fish. When I set off on that walk down the beach, of course I had not even an inkling that I might run into that awesome monk seal. I felt the thrill of an explorer, and I will forever remember that day.
A few days later, we did go on an official snorkeling trip along with dozens of other excited tourists. Somebody taught me how to use snorkel gear, and I stepped off a boat into a huge reef filled with countless tropical fish. I loved every minute of it, but I’m glad that my very first experience with tropical fish was on my own, and by surprise.
Back at BCD in Massachusetts …
we took the B2’s on a walk around campus one day. For four long months, the snow had prevented us from trekking down the path and crossing the bridge over the little stream to get to our favorite pine grove and hillside. But now the snow had mostly melted, and as we approached the bridge, a sound stopped us all short! The children were hearing a new and mysterious noise! Of course I knew what it was — the little stream from last fall was now a rushing river, cruising over its rocky stream bed. But the children had no idea what that sound was … water??? We walked to the bridge, and wow! In an instant they became explorers, discovering the magic of a swelling stream. They exclaimed, “WATER!” They watched, entranced. They lay down on the bridge on their bellies to look; they wanted to get as close as possible to that rushing water.
They were surprised, and enthralled! The next day at school, the first thing P. said to me was, “Can we go on a long walk?”
When we work with young children, one of the reasons we provide opportunities for open-ended experiences is so that they can experience the depth of joy and learning that comes from discovering something themselves. There are countless ways we can recreate the “explorer” experience in the classroom. Instead of being told what to expect, or how to use the paints, or what a finished product should look like, curiosity will motivate them to discover these things themselves, and they will create a product (or a process), that is uniquely theirs. Through this opportunity for adventure, they experience surprise, wonder and absorption. They gain confidence to take the risk to try new things — the desire to go on ANOTHER long walk — and the joy that comes from creating something truly their own.