Milwaukee, Wisconsin
written by :: Pattie Bailie, Director

Why should young children spend time in natural areas?

fall-leavesThe benefits may seem obvious, such as preventing obesity and improving physical development. However, spending time in the natural world also improves a young child’s visual-spatial learning and observation skills, increases confidence, builds a foundation that improves reading, math and science skills, and encourages the child to care for the environment. ‘Indoor’ children who begin to spend time outdoors in all seasons lose their fear of native animals and change their attitudes toward science. They learn to think scientifically, interact safely (with appropriate risktaking), and acquire attitudes of caring and respect for the natural environment.

The Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool is one of a growing number of preschools at nature centers around the country. Housed at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the preschool has use of the Center’s 185 acres of forest, prairie, wetland, and Lake Michigan habitats. The preschool’s philosophy is based on the premise that young children need opportunities to positively connect to the natural world. Nature provides the core curriculum, with the dual purpose of ‘growing’ environmentalists and using nature as a vehicle for the children’s development.

What do children do at your nature preschool?

The children spend at least half their class time outside, in all kinds of weather. In Wisconsin, the winter is cold and spring can be rainy. The children learn how to dress for the weather so they are comfortable outdoors and begin to get in touch with their surroundings. They start their class in one of two natural, but fenced in, play areas where they can choose their activities. On days when the weather is nice they use this area for water play, painting, art activities, climbing trees and balancing on logs, exploring trails, climbing on rocks, and digging in sand and soil. In winter, they use snow shovels to clear the paths and help build homes for animals out of sticks and leaves.

After spending time in a play area, the children hike to one of several habitats at the nature center (forest, pond, wetland, prairie, and lake). These mini-adventures allow the children to use their senses while exploring the natural world. They catch insects in the prairie and frogs in the pond. They observe birds in the forest and collect shells at the beach. These hands-on explorations provide a solid foundation for the development of science skills such as observation and inquiry. When children begin to ask questions, their young minds create theories of the world and then they are able to test them out in a real setting.

The preschool curriculum is based on seasonal change. As the school year begins in the early fall, children catch insects, then observe leaves changing color and dropping off the trees as the weather gets colder, and discover what animals do to prepare for winter. As winter arrives the children identify animal tracks, catch snowflakes on their tongues, and feed the winter birds. Just before spring, the children tap maple trees and boil sap to make maple syrup. (This lasts for nearly the whole month of March and is a highlight of the program.) The children also begin sowing seeds in early spring in grow boxes in each classroom and plant the seedlings in preschool garden plots in one of the play areas as the weather warms up. As spring arrives the children hike to the ponds to find the animals that are waking up from hibernation and observe birds migrating back to Wisconsin. In all seasons, they spend time on the beach at Lake Michigan and see the cycles of nature in progress.

Nature permeates all aspects of the classroom as well. The children care for the animals and plants housed in the classroom. At a sensory table, they manipulate
natural materials including soil, leaves, sand, water, bird seeds, snow; and they shell corn and pull seeds out of sunflower heads. They have access to nature books and field guides. They use natural materials such as pinecones and feathers in their artwork. Tree blocks and animal toys are included in the block area. Binoculars
line the many windows that look out to the forest.

Because the preschool is a part of the nature center we have access to the naturalist staff. The children write letters to the naturalists to ask questions and read the answers that they receive. The naturalists provide extra programs for the children on various topics from turkeys and squirrels to owls and animal tracks. They bring live animals into the classroom and lead the children on special hikes.

What do your children learn through nature?

All aspects of the program give children opportunities to understand their world through their senses. Because children get to spend two, three, or even four days a week — nine months a year — outside in natural surroundings, children learn to positively connect to the natural world. They develop observation skills and a sense of visual-spatial relationships, while exploration encourages their confidence and appropriate risk-taking. By taking care of animals, they develop empathy and thus become better friends to their classmates. They learn to care for their environment by understanding the life cycles and interdependencies of the plants and animals they find in the various habitats they encounter. The solid foundation that children in a nature-based preschool program receive prepares them, not only for school, but also for life.

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