Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let the Outside In!

I went to a workshop down at Conner Prairie on bringing nature inside the classroom. Conner Prairie was generous to make this available to educators! The setting was right, with large open windows overlooking the trees and the facility. There were natural items on the tables. Heather Mead, Director of Education, came from Heritage Museums and Gardens to lead the workshop. What an interesting place! It sounds like they are doing great nature education there! I'm excited to see what else Conner Prairie is doing as they have some great natural spaces and developing nature play spaces as well. 

To introduce ourselves, we found nature pictures we could relate to for some reason and shared with the group. These were beautiful pictures of shapes, patterns, colors, and items from nature. They bring back memories and encouraged me to get outside and discover the magic of nature once again. It was a great collection that I'd love to have. I'll need to start collecting. 

We talked about the challenges of getting outside, such as those listed below. As educators, it's hard to find time with all the curricular demands already. Often, there are few wild spaces. For our students or children, technology is often a competing factor. Many parents (and educators sometimes) are not engaged in the outside. They may be fearful for the child or note feel completely comfortable outside themselves. Ticks scare many off. Many schedules are overpacked, leaving little time for nature play. She mentioned a few studies that say we are basically living our lives indoors, spending 90% of our time inside. She cited another study, mentioning how preschoolers can identify around 100 brands and logos; however, they can identify fewer than ten of the plants in their backyards. Another study saw that children ages 8-16 only spend 4 minutes in unstructured play time outside each day. Our outside time has declined by many hours each decade. We also looked at the benefits of time outside--increased focus, observation skills, lower stress, relief from ADHD symptoms, etc. Our handout read "Nature-bsed learning positively impacts children's physical, emotional, social, and cognitive health and development. She mentioned Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods. Many of us had read it. It's a great argument to get children outside. She also mentioned how the sense of wonder is the greatest predictor of lifelong learning, quoting Rachel Carson. It's one of my favorite quotes as well!

"If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."

We also looked at how we might arrange spaces and the types of materials that might be used in a class. We explored various "stations" with natural ramps and slides, nature art materials, classifying helps, music, and building. There are many natural resources available to help in our journey of including nature inside. 


Effective environments might include natural colors, textures, living plants, natural materials, and images. Indoor plants might be donkey tails, bromeliads, Christmas cactus, or Boston ferns. Think of different textures and colors. Natural images help reduce overstimulation, add beauty, and reflect on the purpose of the areas. Open ended activities support a variety of thinking skills. She shared a quote about a stick as an imaginative play piece. I was reminded of sticks as part of the National Toy Hall of Fame! We mentioned the Reggio Emilio approach, where the environment is children's third teacher.  

We looked at skills children strengthen by connecting with nature, such as visual-spatial, social/interpersonal, interpersonal, language/literacy, science, mathematics, engineering/construction, creative representation, and music. This included a great handout to help justify nature play, exploration, and learning. 

We brainstormed ideas for materials to develop various aspects of Multiple Intelligences Theory. I included some of the thoughts I had for these experiences and notes on other ideas. 
  • language and literacy experience--rocks with letters, pictures of nature, signs to label natural areas, books, comfy places to read, paper, clipboards, colored pencils, etc. 
  • science/engineering experiences--building blocks, balls, tubes, cornstalks, water tables, etc.
  • mathematical experiences--"loose parts" to sort, count, classify, etc. Look at Fibonacci series, area, perimeter, organizing, forestry activities, square foot, different way of measuring
  • creative art experiences--puppets, playdough, scarves, mirrored trays, plastic worms, etc. 
  • social/interpersonal experiences--puppets, dress up, building, mirror tile on ceiling to see how children interact with this, nature faces
  • kinesthetic/body competence experiences--scarves, musical instruments, building blocks, etc.
  • visual-spatial experiences--art, pictures
In groups, we developed an idea for a nature-based indoor experience. With other preschool educators, we decided to look at Animal Homes through a construction and engineering lens. We thought of the story, The Mitten, and concepts such as "We all need homes." We would want pictures of animals homes, puppets, boxes, construction tubes, natural materials, nests, etc. Children could cooperatively build an animal home in small groups. 

I enjoyed talking to the exhibits coordinator at Conner Prairie and seeing how they were making creative play and learning spaces there. I'm sure I will steal some ideas. 

Story boxes were also mentioned. I haven't done much with these so wouldn't mind exploring them with nature based books more. We looked at making connections to standards and 21st Century Skills. As a previous classroom teacher, I think this is critical. Teachers have so much to do. New curriculum is added and more demands are placed on the education system, yet little is taken away. Easy ways to use the expectations of the standards and outcomes in a natural way would be excellent! In my free time, right? :-)

Since I mainly do programming in a local nature center right now, my reflection centered on that. 
3 Ideas I want to remember to take back to my classroom or program are:
--Make natural blocks (a volunteer already did this--THANKS, Charlie! I think I want more!)
--Set up "nature play/exploration" areas inside of the nature center (we have a few, yet this could be developed more fully)
--Collect/decorate with pretty nature pictures
--Explore story boxes more (okay--bonus #4)

2 Things I do already that can be enhanced by ideas from today are:
--organize and make loose parts more accessible
--Set up "nature play/exploration" areas inside of the nature center (we have a few, yet this could be developed more fully)

1 Goal I would like to accomplish in the coming month is:
--Make loose parts more available!