Tadpoles to Tidepools: A Volunteer Perspective

On an early fall day outside of Essex Elementary School, Four Winds volunteer Breana Fucile prepared to teach Galls Galore. She set out gall specimens on paper plates for the students to observe, and the kids quickly went to work examining each one. Suddenly a giant gust of wind swept through the schoolyard, scattering the paper plates into the air as the gall contents flew in all directions. Shrieks of laughter erupted as the children ran to gather everything back up.

Breana began volunteering for Four Winds Nature Program in 2018. Her husband had been a volunteer for the program when their oldest daughter was in kindergarten. “Stepping outside offers so many opportunities for learning,” Breana notes. A path near the school is often visited during Four Winds lessons and a stream nearby prompts one of Breana’s favorite memories – finding tadpoles with the students. According to her, the stream is a great spot for catching frogs, a fundamental skill of childhood. 

“Every time you teach is a different experience,” she shared, remembering how apprehensive she was with the material in the beginning. She now coordinates the program for Essex Elementary and encourages her Essex volunteers to become familiar with the information but then adapt it to what they and the students are interested in. As soon as she started focusing on the learning activities rather than on sharing information it became much easier for her to lead the lessons. She’s seen the spark of curiosity about nature ignite for many children in her classes over the years, watching that sense of wonder grow. She hopes more teachers are able to take their classes outside to learn and is grateful that Four Winds continues to be part of the learning experience at Essex Elementary.

Breana at Rye Beach, New Hampshire.

From her own childhood, that spark of curiosity was ignited by visiting Rye Beach in New Hampshire. She developed a love for the ocean with the rocky shoreline, and it became a favorite location to explore tidepools and make new discoveries. “Sand beaches are nice, but there is something so serene and unique about a rocky beach with tidepools,” she said.

Even though Vermont is a landlocked state, Breana takes the skills she’s learned from Four Winds and applies them by the coast when she goes there now. She enjoys seeing her own children explore the same tidepools she visited as a child and appreciates that the skills they’ve gained together from their time with Four Winds can be taken anywhere they go.  

Breana’s family exploring tide pools.

A World of Natural Wonders 

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. 

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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!”

Notes On Vines

Here are observations from retired Four Winds artist-naturalist-educator Susan Sawyer.

There are all kinds of vines — they are plants that don’t grow stems firm enough to hold themselves up, but use other plants (and any other handy support) to cover a lot of ground, get to the sunlight, and grow a lot of leaves and flowers without spending their energy on making strong stems. This summer I’ve been noticing the way the wild clematis near my house was grabbing onto nearby tall grasses. With their leaf stems! I had seen this before, but it hadn’t quite registered — no tendrils at all, but long, growing, flexible petioles that firmly attach themselves to whatever’s handy. 

The leaves grow in pairs, and in this picture one of the two leaves at each node has found a grass stem and wound right around it.

Below is wild cucumber, which has a two-forked tendril opposite each leaf — and coils itself around whatever it touches, tight as a spring. I think it gets the prize for twistiness.

Vetch, a legume (a family full of vines like peas, pole beans, and groundnut) has double tendrils at the ends of its leaves. Here it has a good grip on a buttercup stem.

Bittersweet, like pole beans, doesn’t have special tendrils, but wraps its whole stem around whatever’s handy. Here two are twined together and headed up the gas tank.

Below are river grapes in a small crabapple tree. Grapes will climb trees to get their leaves up into the sun, and after years their long stems might be as big around as your wrist. 

This short survey leaves out another good climbing method — adhesive discs, which ivy, poison ivy, and Virginia creeper use to climb straight up tree trunks, cliffs, and walls. I’m sure there are other strategies. Most depend on the plant being sensitive to touch — the growing tendrils or stem tips wave themselves around (at plant speed) and can feel when there’s something to wrap onto. Smart, those plants. 

Learning and Teaching As a Four Winds Volunteer

After volunteering as an interpreter at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Kristin Swartzentruber remembered her favorite part of that work was helping kids connect with nature. When her oldest child started kindergarten in Vermont, she reached out to the Four Winds coordinator at Beeman Elementary School to learn more about The Nature Program.

Kristin started volunteering with Four Winds in August 2017. One year ago she chose to take on the coordinator role in New Haven and hasn’t looked back since. Her enthusiasm for Four Winds has only grown with her involvement. 

“It’s really hard to narrow down what I like most about Four Winds because there is so much that I appreciate,” she said. Because of her curiosity about the natural world, she enjoys the monthly trainings provided for volunteers.

“It’s fun to be with other adults learning about owls, snowflakes, tracking, etc. We get so excited to share what we learned with our kids.”

Kristin enjoys going into the classroom with the knowledge imparted to her from each monthly training. Being with her child and his classmates throughout their elementary years by participating as a Four Winds volunteer, has been a highlight for her. In her mind, the outside time that The Nature Program provides for the students is incredibly valuable. 

“I love that this program exists. It is imperative that our children learn about the earth and be curious about it so that they can help us take care of it.”

Kristin has many favorite memories as a Four Winds volunteer, including dissecting owl pellets this past year. Although some students initially didn’t want to be involved in the activity, they became interested when they saw other kids around them starting to find bones in the pellets! 

“All of the grades did it and loved it,” she shared. “Most kids chose to bring the bones home and couldn’t wait to share what they learned with their families.”

Having volunteered for multiple years in the program, studying Structure and Function with the students was a favorite topic of hers, especially exploring the owl section. Dissecting owl pellets was an activity that could have captivated the students for hours. The experience of petting the soft owl legs and wings allowed the students to use their observation skills in a hands-on setting, an important component of The Nature Program. 

Kristin believes that volunteering with Four Winds is a great way to get involved in your child’s education. Though you don’t need to have kids in the school to become one. Interested community members that appreciate nature get involved by volunteering at her school, as well.

“Some people are nervous about volunteering because they don’t know how to teach science to kids and most of us don’t, but [Four Winds] prepares us so well and provides us with resources so any of us can do it. It’s a great program and my children and I have benefited from it.”

Creating Connection With Nature and Community

Chickens brought Chapin Kaynor to volunteer with Four Winds. That is the way he tells it. 

The summer after retiring from a career in software development, Chapin Kaynor was asked to chicken-sit for his neighbor while she went on vacation. She was the mother of two young children in Allen Brook Elementary School with the Four Winds Nature Program in their classes. She told Chapin about the program and encouraged him to become a volunteer. 

He began teaching Nature Program lessons in 2014 with K-4 classes at Allen Brook Elementary School in Williston. During his first year, he also volunteered at Essex Junction. Nearly ten years later he is still volunteering his time to bring The Nature Program to the students in his community.

Because of his longevity with the program, he’s had the opportunity to teach lessons from all five of the program’s year-long concepts more than once. His favorite memory of teaching was exploring stream ecology with the students. 

“Their excitement to get into the brook and overturn stones in search of mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly larvae was so much fun to be a part of,” he shared. 

Witnessing their excitement was only the beginning of what Chapin hopes will become a lifelong interest and curiosity in the natural world. 

“It’s not about what they learn, but the connection to nature that is made.” 

Chapin enjoys teaching and offering a connection with nature through each lesson. Returning to the same classes throughout the year, he has seen the children’s curiosity grow as they continue to learn. However, they aren’t the only ones. 

“The parents grow, too,” he notes. “It’s as much about the parents and volunteers as it is about the kids.”

Chapin encourages anyone considering volunteering for Four Winds to do it. To him, the connections made with the students and the community are well worth it.

In addition to being a Four Winds volunteer, Chapin is a conservation volunteer in his community. He has worked extensively on a project near the school known as the “Tree Island Forest Park.” With the help of many community partners, they have planted dozens of native trees and removed several invasive species. You can read more about the project in this article

When Chapin started he didn’t have a grandchild in the school, but that will change this upcoming year when his five-year-old grandson will join the kindergarten class in which he volunteers. He will also volunteer for two additional classes of third and fourth graders. 

Thank you Chapin for volunteering your time, leadership, and naturalist skills in your community and with The Nature Program!