Though it seems very remote, you are less than a mile away from downtown Northfield when you arrive at the doorstep of Natural Wonders Childcare, LLC. Glance down the hill behind you to a beautiful view of the valley below and mountains in the distance. That is the morning commute for the families of children at Natural Wonders, the nature-based, licensed childcare facility tucked on Turkey Hill. It is run by Kathleen Burroughs and Robin Pennington, two well seasoned Early Childhood Educators with decades of experience caring for, supporting, and guiding children outdoors. Each day they care for 12 children, with ages ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years, in full and part-time care arrangements.
The magic of Natural Wonders unfolds each day when the children are greeted at the gate to the extensive playscape with endless opportunities to connect with nature. You can hear in their voices the eager excitement to let out the chickens for the day or to offer browse to the goats. Their program follows the rhythm of the seasons and allows children to connect with nature every day.
“We love to see the way children create, explore, and play in nature,” shares Kathleen. “Nature provides the perfect place for children to develop their natural sense of wonder and curiosity, and to have a level of freedom to explore and make sense of the world around them. Nature is non-judgmental, self-driven, and gives children the commonality to build relationships with peers that they might not otherwise be friends with.”
On any summer morning the children can be found adventuring along the discovery fairy garden path looking for frogs. The mud kitchen has a rotating menu with seasonal ingredients gathered around the yard. Everyone is encouraged to check on what’s growing in the children’s garden each day and discover what is ready to harvest. The sandboxes are in a perpetual state of construction with important projects underway. On the back edge of the playscape sits a lean-to, big enough to host naptime during the warmer months. There are multiple options for climbing and swinging, and a circle of tree stumps that serves as the gathering site for morning meetings. There is even a second outdoor classroom in the woods called the “Beyond” just on the other side of the fence.
As a child-centered, play-based learning environment, the outdoor space offers the children opportunities to build meaningful relationships with the natural world around them and each other.
The children have the option to sleep in a lean-to shelter, use a compostable outdoor toilet, and experience a fire pit for cooking and keeping warm on chilly days. Although they are outside year-round, they do sleep inside during the winter months. “Our goal is to build a culture whereby each child has a genuine respect, love, and appreciation for the natural world and which inspires each child to become stewards of the land in our communities and beyond.”
In addition to nature hikes, tapping their maple trees, and wilderness exploration, gardening and farming are a huge part of the curriculum. They start seeds inside in the spring and transplant seedlings into the garden together with the children. Over the growing season they enjoy vegetables, fruits, flowers, and a variety of berries from the bushes in the yard.
Food from the garden is eaten for snacks and lunches. An abundant basil harvest prompts a pesto-based community lunch to be shared. The children regularly pick mint from the garden for tea and make jam together from the berries they collect.
The hens, sheep, and goats are significant parts of the experience and the children are active participants in their care. Each day they help feed them and give them fresh water. The highlight for many children is collecting eggs each day. Wool from the sheep is used for felting, finger knitting, and bird nesting material. The chickens and goats act as composting machines, and the children see the importance of that process regularly.
“The best part about the work we do is knowing that we have given each child in our program the best possible experiences outside in nature that they will carry with them throughout their lifetime,” said Kathleen. “Hands-on, uninhibited, and meaningful learning experiences through self-discovery and inquiry are magical and really need to be at the heart of every child’s growth and development!”