The Nature Explore Classroom at
Live and Learn Early Learning Center
The moment I decided to follow instead of lead, I discovered the joys of becoming part of a small child's world. -Janet Gonzalez-Mena
During the past year, Live & Learn Early Learning Center has continued to observe and grow with the children's use of the outdoor classroom spaces. As a staff, a greater intentionality in observing children and creating spaces that meet their needs has developed. Additions this year included a covered wood cookie floor in the toddler outdoor classroom and small picnic tables, wooden handmade art easels and an art storage area. This space allows toddlers to have an outdoor defined creative arts area. Tree House fabric, purchased from the Nature Explore Resource Guide was hung on the roof during the summer months to provide greater shade.
The Messy Materials Area was infused with large branches and planks that provided the kindergarten age children with a greater amount of "heavy" authentic jobs. Looking for ways to encourage open ended play and creativity, Dave Miner created a What's It Shed. This three sided wooden structure, with windows, is a wood workshop one day, an ice cream parlor the next followed by a space central base.
Desiring a space to host family events, community outreach and also a space that older children could present plays and concerts, David created an open concept platform area with Tree House fabric purchased from the educational merchandise catalog of Nature Explore. This site was developed in the camp area where there is a wonderful, old, shag bark hickory tree. During International Mud Day, another mud pit was added to the area. Children could actually swim in the mud! The day was so much fun, that two more center-wide MUD days were held during the summer. In addition, the mud digging area was kept in the fenced outdoor classroom and continues to be a favorite cool down and creation area.
Live & Learn continues to add and rebuild areas outside of their fenced outdoor classroom. The kindergarten area was enhanced by including a storage area, a wood working table, shed and a free style "rocket" created from old recycled water heaters. Summer camp for school aged children continues totally outdoors. Partnership continues with the extended year special education program and with an inclusive nature based program that hopefully will become a model for other districts. Workshops were created to help other teachers see the value of being outdoors for children of all needs.
To increase awareness and share knowledge and ideas, an annual Sense of Place Conference was planned, implemented and hosted, with Jeanine Fitzgerald as the keynote and Tracy Kane, author of the Fairy House series, as endnote. The project partnered with the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition and high school students studying early childhood. This participation will allow them to build their knowledge to include teaching outdoors and with nature.
Following last year's success, fun was added to the gardening projects. Each classroom was challenged to have their gardens follow a different children's book. Linea in Monet's garden, Daisy's Rainbow Dream, Stone Soup and Groundhog's Garden were all developed. The classrooms grew rainbow color vegetables and hoops were added to grow tomatoes and beans on and to provide a shelter. The local elementary school joined to plant, harvest, make and eat stone cold soup.
Early learning centers do not just work with children. It is a must to understand that children come nestled in families and building strong communities with teachers, children, families and community is a must. Families are encouraged to take a few extra minutes at pick up to stay and see what their children are learning.
Professional Development continued this year with an array of presentations and attendance at many conferences. During the past year Live & Learn continued to participate in the Cultural Competency Project that was a part NAEYC's Strengthening Families Project. They partnered with a local elementary school to give them space in their gardens, exploring different recipes from the families using garden produce. These were then made available to families to take home that day. Children can often be seen leaving at the end of the day munching on a tomato or other fresh vegetables.
During the past year, Live and Learn continued to involve all families by inviting them to join them for one of four Stay & Play afternoons that included planting in the garden, hay rides and nature walks. Other afternoons included sledding, snowshoeing, apple cider making with a press, and a garden harvest event. An outdoor picnic was held where each child could invite a special adult to come eat with them. Realizing that not all families are available to be involved in activities on a workday afternoon, evening family outdoor events are also held. This year, a summer carnival was held and a Halloween event- complete with nature trails based on Alice in Wonderland.
Each year Johanna Miner and her daughter, Sarah, provide training all over the nation to early childhood educators and at their own Center. The third annual training of Art is the Voice of the Soul; Looking at the Creative Arts in the Natural Setting was held. This training was for teachers with their children. The staff of Live & Learn engaged the children in nature art activities while the teachers attended the training with Johanna and Sarah. For the last half hour, everyone came together and Johanna led outdoor creative art invitations that were nature based and that touched all areas of curricula. Always looking for ways to help families and to establish a drop off routine, Live and Learn added a wonder table to the entryway which contains items from nature "that we wonder about".