Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Humans learn best when all of their senses are engaged, they have time to investigate, and are able to have first-hand real-world experiences.
I have dreamed of an educational environment that utilizes these principles. A place that is based on science and the outdoors, utilizes the natural curiosity of children, involves children in healthy food systems, and is multidisciplinary in its approach. A place with daily concrete experiences in nature with ample time to explore. A place that does not emphasis unproven and dangerous high-stakes testing. A place that uses research to lead decisions about homework and the timing and progression of academic skills. A place that looks to educate, support and celebrate the whole child.
This type of early childhood education will prepare children of all economic levels for their formal educational career by growing students who can think, problem solve, self-regulate and build upon prior experiences. However, this is difficult to create in a large-scale school setting. Despite what we as educators know about best practice, our children are often in large classes detached from nature using curricula that is paper based and very abstract. They are exposed to prepackaged food and very little exercise.
For the last twelve years, I have been on a professional journey to find or work to create this type of environment. This has led me to different teaching opportunities, touring multiple schools, independent study, joining professional groups, attending many conferences and has culminated in my current work for a Graduate Certificate in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy. My ideas are rooted in work from educators like Piaget, Gardner, Kohn, Bruner, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Murphy. I have seen the possibilities in practice as a preschool teacher as I have grown professionally and in the way I have changed my own classroom over the years.
After working to change an existing school for years was no longer possible, I began searching in my area for this type of school. Finding none within driving distance, I created a team of advisors from the University of Dayton and in Dayton’s business community. Through my coursework, market research, and running a pilot program at my family farm, I have worked with the staff, board, community partners, and funders to develop a nature-based preschool at Learning Tree Farm. At the farm, my talented staff and I seek to create a community of playful learners that values connections to the natural world, sustainability of food systems, and human relationships. The school provides a high-quality early educational environment by implementing child-centered and hands-on daily experiences outdoors.
Working with children in nature literally opens a whole new world to teachers in the early childhood field. Bringing literacy, math and science alive in the outdoors brings out the eager child in me. This work has not only changed my professional life, but has impacted my own family’s relationships with each other, with nature, and with food. I want to share this balanced approach to learning with as many families and children as possible for physical, mental and emotional health.
In addition to continuing to work on my teaching practice in this environment, I have a vision of interconnected agencies in Ohio working to bring a more balanced type of education to the children in this area. Our work at the Nature Preschool is a fantastic model of how agencies and stakeholders can discover best practices, grow professionally, and lead our area into a balance between how children learn best. Play, exploration, and authentic discovery allow children to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and risk taking. These skills, not memorization and test taking are what our world will need in the next century to combat the large issues that face us. I see the Miami Valley and a preK-12 education system rooted in its natural environment and sound Developmentally Appropriate Practice as integral to our region’s future. If we use nature as a core driver of why we teach, how we teach and what we teach with an emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving and risk taking, all of the components of a solid education can be mastered.
In order to offer a more balanced approach to learning, it is important that we push the nature based education model into more early childhood settings, local elementary schools, the homeschool community and build capacity and interest in a nature based school for older grades. Ultimately, this pedagogy will create a healthier, happier and more empowered citizenry. It is time to work toward a more balanced education system that allows us to live to our full potential.