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Best Self Outdoors

“I teach at StoneLedge Stables, which is a non-profit I started in 2015. We are an outdoor, nature-based program, and rescued farm animals are co-facilitators. We have 3 horses, 2 pigs, a goat, a bunny, a duck, and a hen. Kids can start on the farm with a parent or caregiver as young as 2.5. Due to family requests, we now go up to rising 3rd graders. 

When I was a child, I rescued an injured animal near my house. Finding this passion of rescued animals, and now farm animals, I offer that to students who wouldn’t have an opportunity to work with large animals. The animals give something that – no matter how much education, no matter how wonderful we are with students – that we just cannot give. Seeing the growth, specifically the social-emotional growth that occurs, is very transformative, not only for students but for their families. 

We do animal husbandry work as part of our curriculum. Heavy work is such an invaluable tool to educators that we don’t use enough, especially in early childhood. It’s organizing and calming for so many students.

 The math, the science you can bring in, we really work that cross-curriculum with the animal husbandry work. We are ~90% outside, and our other outdoor spaces are in the forest, at the brook, in the gardens.

For me, I’ve always been most connected and focused when I was outside, when I was with animals. I’ve always felt the most at peace in nature, and I really wanted to give that back to students, especially in an age of technology. Society moves so fast! With the increase in mental health issues and other diagnoses in children, I think we as educators really need to take that step back. Knowing where my own children were their ‘best people’—it was outdoors!”

-Sandy Bailey, StoneLedge Stables, Norwich, VT

Caring for the Earth

“We care for the earth,” students at Evergreen Preschool proclaimed as they showed me around their outdoor space. “We plant seeds and give water to plants,” they elaborated. Children were sprinkled around the swings, the sandbox, multiple kitchen areas, and the fire pit, as they began their outdoor play. But when the back gate was opened to the wild wetland landscape, they all rushed through. The children reached up with sticks to tickle the last leaves on trees. Later, they made a campfire out of wooden blocks, created dramatic play games of stick horses and birds with leaf nests, and used stick forts to “pretend.” Another student calmly squished moist soil in their hands.

Teacher Amanda Anderson sees the benefits of “being an empathetic person when you’re outside. You’re being thoughtful to the plants that you’re around, and your environment – how we take care of where we live and the bugs. That’s a big thing every year for a lot of kids, having to learn how to take care of those things instead of smoosh them – making them a new habitat, building them a home. Where do they like to live? And you can’t do that inside, you can read books, but it’s not the same or as impactful as when you’re getting messy and wet.” “And holding that worm!” adds teacher Kim Crawford.

Looking Closely at Fiddleheads

According to writer Kurt Vonnegut, we are ending the season of “unlocking.” We’re entering spring, the season of unfurling fiddleheads. Also known as croziers (hooked staffs), these coiled fern fronds have characteristic colors, textures, and shapes. Look closely, how many different fiddleheads can you find? 

Covered in shiny white hairs and arching back as they unfurl: Christmas Fern fiddleheads.
Dotted with dark brown scales: Lady Fern fiddleheads.
Light magenta with wispy white hairs: Maidenhair Fern fiddleheads.
Deep maroon, smooth, and growing in wet areas: Sensitive Fern fiddleheads. Also look for the dark, bead-like clusters of the fertile fronds that persist through the winter. 
Coated in fuzzy white wool: Interrupted Fern fiddleheads.
Covered in shiny, bronze scales, with a celery stalk-like groove in the stem: Ostrich Fern fiddleheads.
Also be on the lookout for their namesake feather-like fertile fronds that remain from last year. Ostrich Fern fiddleheads are edible, but be sure you can correctly identify this species! And to harvest these fiddleheads sustainably, take only one of any ten Ostrich Fern fiddleheads you find. 

Fostering Imagination with Loose Parts

“This is our boat!” declared preschoolers at AllTogetherNow! Preschool in East Montpelier. They explained further, “The parts in front make sure we don’t bump into things. We are heading to California. We have five silly cats onboard. Here is our pizza oven with a table on top. We’re making chocolate pizza today! We have to wear our coats to go through the cold lava so we can catch fish to eat.”

Blocks from a timber framer, gutters, and logs were also transformed into the “ball drop” game. Here, students practiced early scientific method explorations. They observed where the ball was going, adjusted components, and predicted where the ball would end up. They continued to observe, adjust, and predict again, and again, and again, until they were able to get the ball to go exactly where they wanted.

Outdoors, Director Ellen Leonard sees greater levels of engagement. She says, “There is never a lack of something to do!” While Ellen has seen kids reach the end of their imagination indoors, she has never seen that outdoors. With more space and creative freedom outdoors, Ellen has seen students rise to greater independence and resilience. 

No Bored Outdoors

“Kids these days don’t get to do any kind of risky play. As a child I was able to do that. It’s a huge thing I’m noticing, with students, not being able to assess their own ability and regulate themselves. I remember just going in the woods, and my mom didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing…just not being monitored. Kids these days aren’t always given that opportunity.”

“We have 3 year olds and 4 year olds. For the 3 year olds, [nature play] is about giving them time and space. At first they just stand there like they don’t know what to do. I’m telling my co-workers, just give them that time and space to kind of just figure it out, and they will! It will go from there and turn into something beautiful. The 4 year olds are a little bit more able to just jump into it, cognitively they can figure it out a little bit more, and they’ve been given the opportunity already. I just kind of take their lead with their play. We see what they are interested in and build off of that.”

“I’ve seen especially kiddos with autism or other social needs, just really blossom in the woods and start to interact more. I remember one kid who did not engage with his peers at all inside and when we got in the woods it was like a light went on and he wanted to be with his friends. In general, there’s not a lot of bickering. It’s funny, in the classroom there’s a million toys, and they’re saying they’re bored. And then we’re out in the woods and there’s none of that. There’s no bored.”

–Karly Wilcox, Barrington NH Early Childhood Learning Center

Discovery Walk

A child’s name is pulled out of a bag to begin the discovery walk. That youngster will be the leader – completely directing the exploration route. This is part of the weekly routine at Nature’s Niños Nature-based bi-lingual Pre-K in East Montpelier. Stopping for investigations along the way, like “helicopters” from the maple trees, the student leader then picks a spot for everyone to notice in silence. On one morning’s outing, the children were noticing the wet spots on grass, wondering what happened to the colors on a leaf, questioning why a grape plant didn’t grow much, and mulling over the movement of the clouds – while one student thought an airplane moved the clouds, another child added that sometimes the clouds are moving without an airplane.

Then it was time to take out the rainbow of magnifying lenses and make some discoveries. Shouts of “Hongo!” (mushroom in spanish) filled the air along with many questions and observations.

“I have a discovery over here!”

“What do you think happened with this branch?”

“Why is there no bark on this tree?”

“Why are all these leaves brown?”

“Come look at this! It’s like a whole fairy land!”

After nestling into a log to listen to a story, a ladybug puppet on a stick is passed around and students share what they are grateful for – many leaves and bugs on that morning. Then it is time for the students to take the lead again. “Can you find your way back?” asks teacher Betsy Barstow.

Betsy sees many benefits of being outside with children including fresh air, creativity, curiosity, wonder, a sense of beauty, and minds being broadened and also focused. There is the sheer joy of running through fields, becoming in tune with the cycles of nature, and fostering foundational connection to each other and nature. Cultivating peace is the ultimate goal of her program and being “grounded in nature, knowing you can always come back to nature.”

Natural History Mystery

Who is hiding in the leaf litter? Hint: This is the special time of year when you can see them above ground.  

A spotted salamander! These secretive salamanders spend most of their time in subterranean small mammal tunnels or under rocks or logs. On warm, wet nights in early spring, these members of the mole salamander family migrate to their ancestral breeding pools. On these nights, adults gather and perform a “liebesspiel” courtship dance. Males produce spermatophores, or small packets of sperm. Females pick up these spermatophores and eggs are internally fertilized. 

Even if you miss spotted salamanders on their migration or in their courting congress, you can tell they have visited pools by the spermatophores and eggs they leave behind. 

Male spotted salamanders deposit up to 80 of these mucus blobs topped with sperm capsules. 

Spotted salamander egg masses are usually attached to sticks and vegetation underwater. They are made up of 50-250 eggs and have a firm jello texture. Like all salamander egg masses, there is a gel envelope surrounding the entire egg mass for protection against predators, like newts.

Mushroom Soup

“We’re making mushroom soup!” The call came from a tucked away mud-kitchen microspace at Honeycomb Kids Preschool in Richmond. The heavy rain had made prime soup-making and fishing conditions at the mud hole. Students counted as they transferred cups of water from one container to another, watched where the water flowed when they dumped buckets, rolled in the mud, and experimented splashing with different tools. 

Director Ellen Kraft sees the benefits of this open-ended play, “What they are doing right now (dumping and pouring water) they can do this all day, but they’re only going to build with legos for maybe 7 minutes, 10 if they’re really focused. They can dump and pour for hours. So here we’re really strengthening their ability to follow through on something, have a creative idea, expand their attention span.”

Ellen explains, “When children are learning in nature, their play is truly developmentally appropriate. The children know what they need. They know how to interact with the natural materials that are all naturally open-ended…sticks and trees and grass, and everything around us. Every stick can become anything, all of these tall grasses can become anything … So I feel like we’re honoring their independence, their psychology and their disposition. It’s just honored in such a visceral way.”

Jumping into Confidence

“What I find with the outdoor classroom, in the first 2-3 weeks, the kids come back to me a lot. ‘Should I, can I…’ And I say ‘you have to figure that out, that’s your job out here.’ Their empathy really just increases so much because they learn to depend on one another outside. I always send them back to each other. I’m there as a resource of last resort but I really encourage them to depend on each other and they do.

There is a fallen tree that they climb, walk the length of, and at some point—wherever they feel comfortable—they jump off. By the end they’re jumping off the end which is probably 3 ½ ft off the ground, a big jump for them. They are so proud of themselves when they finally get to the end and are able to jump off. They figure that out, where they feel safe to jump. Their confidence, independence, their decision-making skills, are so improved and I see it in the classroom. Even if it’s deciding what kind of paper to use, they are much more assertive in their decision making.

Don’t be disappointed if at first they come back to you a lot, constantly checking in, asking questions. I’d have to remind them ‘you can do it!’ That will pass. Just watch. Because they will start to drift away from you and start to explore and be interested in the nature around them, and PLAY out there!” 

-Mary Irons, Kindergarten Teacher, Strafford School, Strafford NH

“I got this!”

“I have an idea!” “Let’s try our idea!” “We have another idea!” There was an eruption of ideas at Visual Eyes Creativity Center in Thetford. On that morning they were exploring ice – investigating how it moved down sleds and slides with various obstacles, covering it with sand, watching as it changed in their hands.

Director Melanie French’s advice is to not get bogged down by expensive plastic things, and focus on free natural materials. “Don’t worry if you don’t have something,” she says, “kids will find wonder in a blade of grass.” She says her students spend more time and find more things to do in the apple tree than the play structure. Melanie had a student with different sensory needs whose favorite thing to do was to lie on that apple tree branch. The textures, sounds, and the muscle work help students reach a state of both engagement and relaxation outdoors, Melanie explained.           

New in the yard that morning were cut stumps circling an island of sand. The stumps were set up as stepping stones of varying heights. On their first attempt of circumnavigating the sand, some students asked for an adult’s finger to hold. The kids persisted, and soon they were balancing on their own. As students gained confidence, some challenged themselves by jumping from stump to stump. The chorus changed to: “I got this!” “I did it!”