The Early Childhood Committee of NoVA Outside organized the “Getting Kids Outdoors in Nature” conference on March 25 at the Fairlington United Methodist Church. The conference brought together educators in varied roles from the usual mix of early childhood programs, all interested in learning more about nature education.
In her keynote address, Outdoor Education and Nature Connection Specialist Amy Beam encouraged us to let children take risks that help develop their gross motor skills and their confidence in their own problem-solving abilities. The examples she brought of the many different materials she and the children take with them on their long walks through natural areas helped us plan for our own programs. In her breakout sessions Beam taught fun activities, games, songs and techniques that awaken and deepen children’s innate love of nature and learning.
Directors Debbie Brown, Susan Parker, and Margaret Moran lead half-day parent co-op programs with classes that spend days each week entirely outdoors on “field trips” in partnering local parks. They talked about the on-going process to educate parents and other family members on the benefits of outdoor experiences that take place off the playground.
Lesley Romanoff, also the director of a half-day parent co-op program, has found that play gets a child closer to “ready to learn” than anything else, but adults/parents need to see that teachers are checking off the boxes of curriculum and standards. She advised directing attention to the value of play and playful learning by documenting and explaining to parents how nature play does more than check all the boxes. For educators who plan to incorporate more time in natural areas, Romanoff recommends to “start small.”
Alonso Abugattas, Arlington Parks Naturalist and Capital Naturalist blogger, advises us to be flexible and use the “interpretive moment” to teach about whatever in nature has children’s attention. His enthusiasm for small wildlife was infectious: “Those millipedes are so cool!” making me excited about searching for them. If you have difficulty locating small animals like millipedes and isopods, use his technique of putting a board or old door down on the ground. After a few days, open this “Door to the Underground” to reveal millipedes, isopods, slugs, worms, and more. Remember to check for yellow jacket wasps first, since they may be nesting.
Naturalist Sarah Glassco says a school garden is great for getting kids outdoors and attracting wildlife. Many programs do not have access to a natural area so a garden is a good place to experience nature. She brought a mini-library of her favorite resources so participants could become familiar with them and research their nature observations when she took the group outdoors.
In every session, participants shared their successes in teaching children in outdoor settings and problem-solved how to work through the hurdles that keep us from teaching outdoors. After the sessions we gathered for lunch and casual discussions. Lunch and networking, two very important experiences for earlychildhood educators that we often don’t get time for!