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Partnership connects preschoolers with nature

| Judy Berthiaume

Preschoolers at UW-Eau Claire’s Children’s Nature Academy are searching for more than just the perfect sledding hill or snow pile to climb when they venture outside this winter.

As they stomp through the snow, the youngsters are on the lookout for animal tracks of all kinds, an activity that will help them identify and learn more about the many kinds of wildlife that live in the 100-plus acres of woods that surround their school.

“Connecting children with nature is an investment in a lifetime of healthy living,” Lisa Coen, director of the Children’s Nature Academy, says of activities that help children interact with nature. “When we can connect children with nature at very young ages, we are preventing anxiety, providing hobbies, making important social connections and more.”

The winter animal tracking activity is exactly the kind of nature-based learning experience that teachers and staff envisioned when the university’s child care center moved to their new home on a large, wooded property a couple miles outside of the Eau Claire city limits.

But it’s also the kind of lesson that the center’s teachers and staff struggled to develop on their own because they lacked the time, environmental expertise and funds to do it well, Coen says.

Fortunately, last year the Citizens Science Center at the Beaver Creek Reserve — a nature reserve located a few miles from Eau Claire — stepped in with an offer to help bring the university’s vision for nature-based curriculum to life.

“They had this wonderful location and vision but the teachers didn’t have the background or resources to really develop the nature-based curriculum,” says Jeannette Kelly, CSC director. “At Beaver Creek, we’ve been wanting to reach out more to the early childhood age group, so partnering with the university was good for both of us.”

Beaver Creek Reserve has many activities and resources for school-age children, but early childhood is a population that it wants to better serve, Kelly says.

A $50,000 eco grant from 3M was used to update the Beaver Creek Nature Reserve in ways that make it more accessible for young visitors, but some of those dollars also were used to help the Children’s Nature Academy create the nature-based curriculum they’ve long wanted, Kelly says.

“It was just a great opportunity for us,” Kelly says. “We’ve often had partnerships with UW-Eau Claire’s biology department and we hire a lot of university students as interns. But the Nature Academy was a chance for us to partner with the university in a new way; it’s different from anything we’ve done before.”

Given her background as a wildlife biologist and as an environmental educator, Kelly understands the power of connecting young children with nature, as well as the tools and strategies needed to get them excited about exploring the world around them.

Preschool-age children are accepting of things that older kids and adults might find scary or just plain yucky, says Kelly.

“It’s the perfect time to expose them to spiders and other things that might make them uncomfortable when they’re older,” Kelly says. “Young kids still find wonder in everything, and their minds are like a sponges so they take everything in. If we wait too long they might shy away from it or get hooked into other things.”

With the grant dollars, CSC created environmental-based curriculum that the Nature Academy teachers can easily follow, and purchased the kinds of materials the teachers need to support learning activities for that age group.

Specific units — each touching on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were created for each of the four seasons, ensuring that the curriculum covered an entire year of learning, Kelly says.

The animal tracking unit is part of their winter curriculum, flowers and frogs are among the spring topics, birds and bugs are covered during the summer, and the preschoolers learn about bats, spiders and trees in the fall.
“We designed programs covering the topics we identified for each season,” Kelly says. “We used binders to organize vocabulary, fun facts, websites and other resources for the teachers. We also created in writing the specific steps that will lead teachers through each of the projects we included.”

A unit on bats might include bat facts, books about bats, bat-themed craft projects, bat coloring pages, music, poems and math activities.

The lessons even include nature-based snack ideas — bat sandwiches anyone?

And, not surprisingly, every lesson includes an outside activity.

To make the curriculum even more accessible to busy teachers, CSC provided each classroom with four large bins, with each bin containing all the materials and plans they would need to teach the lessons designed for each of the four seasons, Kelly says.

“It was so fun to give each preschool classroom a year’s worth of nature-based curriculum,” Kelly says. “Anything they need that’s not perishable is in those bins. We really wanted the materials and plans we put together to be useful for the teachers so they would want to use them and add to it. We also want the kids to go home excited about what they’re learning so they are anxious to get outside with their families.”

The CSC-provided materials were well thought out and put together with care, and materials are perfect for the age of their students, Coen says.

“The curriculum is very preschool centered and is wonderful for special unit studies, center activities, and even group times,” Coen says. “Consideration was given to the development of the children and the materials that would help preschoolers understand concepts in a hands-on way. Materials are beautiful and compliment what already is being done by the teachers in the classrooms. This was a bonus for us as many of the items would not have fit into our existing budget.”

Coen says she also appreciates that the materials include learning extensions, which allows teachers to easily adapt the lessons to meet the needs of the specific children in their class.

“We know that each child is unique so having a range of activities and lessons within the same topic really helps us teach the individual child,” Coen says. “In fact, teachers have been adding to the curriculum as the topics evolve with the children.”

While all the lessons have been well received, the animal tracking and bat lessons seem to be especially popular among the teachers and preschoolers, Coen says.

“We also love learning about birds at the Children's Nature Academy,” Coen said, referring to the spring curriculum. “We know the bird calls, bird names and many other things about our feathered friends.”

Some of the 3M grant dollars were used to bring the academy’s 4-year-old classes out to Beaver Creek for field trips, something that the center likely couldn’t afford to do on its own, Kelly says, noting that the kids loved exploring the Beaver Creek Nature Reserve with their friends.

Working together with the CSC to advance the academy’s curriculum has been a positive experience that is benefitting current and future preschoolers, Coen says, noting that she expects the curriculum and materials provided will be used by teachers well into the future.

“When we can pool our resources, financial or otherwise, everyone wins,” Coen says. “Creating a unified vision that is good for everyone gives us the power to make a difference in the lives of many, including ourselves.”
Feedback about the joint efforts to enhance the center’s nature-based curriculum has been positive, Kelly says.

Teachers have told CSC that thanks to the lesson plans and materials, they are more comfortable teaching environmental-based curriculum and they’re more confident when taking the children outside to interact with nature, Kelly said.

“We love to bring nature into classrooms,” Kelly says. “If young kids get excited about nature at school, we hope they bring that home and encourage their families to get outside as well.”