Nature Preschool offers program completely outside as kids use ‘natural world as their classroom'

Many schools transitioned to virtual learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but one local program for preschoolers had the foundation in place to provide a safe environment for children to learn.

Nature Preschool is a program through the Chippewa Nature Center, which offers children between the ages of 3 and 4 the opportunity to learn through nature.

The Nature Preschool program runs the duration of a traditional school year beginning mid-September until mid-May. Photo courtesy of Chippewa Nature Center.Madison Powell, director of Nature Preschool, says this is the first year the program is completely outdoors, except in situations of extreme weather.

“In general, we are outdoors more than indoors for the entire year anyway,” says Powell. “We do have indoor classrooms that we use a bit more heavily in the dead of winter, but this year we're using them only as shelter. So if the weather were to be dangerous in any way, then we use the indoor classroom.”

The program has put into practice COVID-19 policies and procedures as required by the state of Michigan. Part of that is a different check-in procedure that now includes health screening.

“We know that we are not immune to any of this, but we are trying to set ourselves up for success as much as possible,” says Powell. “We have things in place just in case anything were to happen, such as separating the teaching team so that we can have as little impact to the program as possible.”

Powell says since they are outdoors utilizing open-air schooling, they are able to serve families more safely.

“We’re following all the rules, regulations, and procedures that we've been asked to, but we are fortunate in a sense that we are outdoors,” says Powell. “There are less instances where things are required more when things are recommended, so we can talk to families and gauge their comfort level, and then make decisions that make sense for our program.”

“We have goldenrod in our meadow and it's quite abundant,” says Madison Powell, Nature Preschool Director. “They're allowed to cut it and do all sorts of things with it. They could maybe take it in the math direction and start counting or sorting, or they could go in more scientific direction and start to understand natural parts of the plant. There's all sorts of opportunities and because it is child-directed, all of those things can be happening during the same class session.” Photo courtesy of Chippewa Nature Center.Nature Preschool runs half-day classes the duration of the school year, beginning in mid-September until mid-May.

Powell says the switch to being fully outdoors has had little impact on the activities that children participating were previously doing. Instead of sitting at a desk and cutting with scissors and using paper, the children are out using the natural world to learn, such as the difference between abundance and scarcity.

“Instead of just taking the traditional activities and moving them outside, which you could do, they're more in connection with nature and what's happening out there,” says Powell. “So teachers plan daily based on the things that their kids are interested in instead of planning for the entire month. Seasonal changes, things that they're coming across throughout the property — they're using the natural world as their classroom.”

Powell says that while they are still seeing the same patterns of learning behaviors as before COVID-19, teachers have also been training to make sure that they are prepared to work through any behavioral indications of trauma.

“We’ve all lived through this craziness for the past few months, and children are receptive,” says Powell. “They know, even if it's not being discussed in front of them, that parents are stressed. There's been different things that have gone on in our world that has impacted our children for sure, so we have just been preparing our teachers and doing all of our training to make sure that we are able to support the children and their families.”

To learn more about the Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool or to read about their COVID-19 Response and Preparedness Plan, visit chippewanaturecenter.org/nature-preschool

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