Young children thrive in nature. While playing in a natural setting, children have limitless possibilities to engage their imaginations, to develop their social interactions with peers, to learn about themselves, and to encounter new ideas. Free from screens, they can challenge themselves physically as they navigate terrain, play with natural elements, and learn about their own physical capacities.
Risk is an important element of a child's growth. Nature provides a backdrop for healthy risk-taking that allows a child to develop confidence, self-awareness, and independence. Creativity, complex thought processing, and problem-solving skills are all advanced as children become comfortable creating imaginary worlds using natural elements.
When children engage in nature play, it is so much more than “just playing.” Observing this complex, compassionate play is an honor for a nature-based teacher. Day after day, season after season, the play develops and nuances until the children have woven a group play that wraps them up together and will nurture them as they grow.
2. We believe in DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION.
We are mindful of the disparity in access to nature-based learning and play. We strive to create a welcoming place for children of all races, socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion, and ability because we believe a connection to nature is a right of all childhoods.
We believe in affirming any and all gender identities. We actively broaden a child’s perspective of gender identity and expression. In our setting this can look like changing traditional pronouns used in storytelling, gently offering alternatives to binary gender roles in play and discussion, or supporting a child as they experiment with or define expressions.
We honor the many cultures, perspectives, and compositions of the families at the Schoolhouse. We celebrate the uniqueness of each family and address the early bias that even young children may have acquired. We celebrate seasonal, nature-based traditions and festivals inclusive of all backgrounds and centered on the child’s experience in the natural world.
At the Schoolhouse, all are welcome here, and our community is more vibrant because of it.
3. We believe in TEACHING RESILIENCE.
Resilience is the human capacity to cope with stress and adversity. It is commonly thought of as the ability to bounce back after times of difficulty. The Schoolhouse uses the Devereux Center for Resilient Children’s assessment and resources to partner with families to increase a child’s protective factors and decrease their risk factors.
Recent research results are encouraging that the nature preschool experience supports the development of a child’s resilience. “As Joan Almon notes, ‘As with so many aspects of healthy development, children have an innate capacity to be resilient’ (2015, p. 5). It appears from this study, nature preschools are helping bring that capacity to fruition, surrounding children ‘with love and warmth that does not smother them but gives them a strong foundation for meeting life’s obstacles’ and cultivating a ‘love of nature and a trust in its cycles of death and rebirth’ (Almon, 2015, p. 5). Through strengthening children’s internal protective factors, and through supportive contexts and relationships, children will have the capacity to function well in spite of adversity. Not only will this serve them well, but the benefits extend into the communities in which they live, and the ecosystems on which life depends (Chawla, et al., 2014; Tidball & Krasny, 2014).” Ernst, Johnson, Burcak (Full text: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1225648.pdf)
Deep snow banks, rainy days, loving teachers, a wondrous forest, and cherished friendships combine together to support the growth of a child’s internal protective factors - initiative, self-regulation, and attachment/relationships - so children leave their days at nature preschool ready to navigate the path ahead.
4. We believe in COLLABORATION.
The Schoolhouse is a part of the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative. This group of incredible educators and leaders has cooperated to support the growth of the nature preschool and nature-based learning movement in the Duluth-area. Every day hundreds of Duluth-area children are playing and learning outside in their nearby forests.
Our director, Laura Whittaker, is a steering committee member for MN Early Childhood Outdoors. The purpose of MN Early Childhood Outdoors is to provide a way for early childhood educators in Minnesota to connect with one another, share ideas & resources, and support each other in providing high quality, nature-based learning opportunities throughout the state.
The Schoolhouse has been involved with years of research conducted by our local University. We are so grateful for the past and current Schoolhouse families’ participation in this important research that is informing the practice of nature-based learning and play across the nation.
Every year students and teachers visit the Schoolhouse to observe our program. We believe in supporting future and current teachers to incorporate more nature-based learning and play in their practices. The Schoolhouse offers internships and student teaching placement opportunities for educators interested in becoming nature-based teachers.
Changing current educational practices to incorporate more nature-based, whole-child approaches takes collaboration, and we are proud to be a part of this important shift.
5. We believe in SLOWNESS.
“Go slow. Pet a chicken,” she told me as she scooped up one of the Schoolhouse Hens. The sun was just coming up over the Lake as a new day at nature preschool began. Children were being dropped off, hugging their families and running into the playscape to join in the play. She sat on a rock, watching, breathing, and petting the chicken.
This wisdom from a three-year-old speaks to one of our foundational beliefs: slowness. At the Schoolhouse we often say, “no hurry, no worry.” Here, time moves slower. There is room for curiosity, wonder, and exploration. We encourage children to pause, to observe, and to step outside the rush of the big, busy world spinning around them.
In our teaching practice, we honor the child’s pace, slowing our own thoughts and hopes for the day as educators to create space for the child. Emergent curriculum and flow learning require the nature-based teacher to tune into the child’s experience in the natural world. In this slowness, we can together, teacher and child, be a part of the magic of a childhood connected to nature.
6. We believe in TEACHING EMPATHY.
Young children are beginning to understand that they are a part of an intricate web of human relationships. As a part of this development we teach empathy by modeling care for others, teaching ways of showing empathy, and helping children understand the ways that others show how they are feeling. We belong to each other, and our community thrives when we care for one another and try to understand each other’s perspectives.
In nature preschool, empathy extends beyond our human relationships into the natural world. Through storytelling and modeling, we invite the children to understand the natural world around them as animate. We teach them to harvest honorably when picking flowers so as not to distress the plant or future growth. They gain an understanding that the plants, animals, fungi, trees, and other natural elements of the forest are worthy of their empathy.
Empathy towards nature comes naturally for children. They greet a mushroom day after day beside the trail as they hike by. One day it is tipped over, and they stop, heads huddling together peering down at the fungi. They investigate, offer condolences, and sing a song before they continue down the trail.
“May the long time sun shine on you, All love surround you, And the true light within you, Guide your way on.”
7. We believe in NEIGHBORHOOD.
Here on the hillside overlooking Lake Superior, the Schoolhouse is committed to community building in the nearby neighborhood. From Mesaba Avenue west to Observation Hill and over to Lincoln Park, we want the children and families living and working nearby to connect so that they can benefit from the convenient community of one another in many ways throughout their child’s growth.
Place-based education is central to the nature preschool model; it connects children to their community. When children learn in and through the place they live, they have hands-on experiences to scaffold their learning. At the Schoolhouse, our commitment to our neighborhood enhances this place-based experience by connecting a child to their nearby forest, nature preschool, home, neighbors, and local businesses.
The world is a much kinder place when we are connected to those nearby, and we envision neighborhood children building lifelong friendships playing in the nearby natural places.
(Of course, children from all parts of the Duluth-area are welcome, and our Schoolhouse community has been so enriched by families from many neighborhoods coming to play and learn here in Observation Hill!)
8. We believe in ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP.
We acknowledge that we learn and play on Indigenous land. We acknowledge that the reciprocal relationship we are aiming to inspire between children and nature is best modeled in the ancestral and current Native nations. We are learning to integrate traditional stories, practices, and ways of relating to the Earth in a culturally responsive way into our teaching.
We practice low-waste and everyday actions that model care for the environment. We teach the early concepts of environmental activism so that our nature preschoolers will use their voices to protect the Earth. We believe that the innovation and creativity that is developed in nature preschool will lay the groundwork to prepare children for the challenge of a changing climate. We believe that learning to love this small place, this hillside Northwoods forest, will set the foundation for understanding and compassion towards the natural environment on a global scale.
Nature preschool supports a strong connection with nature where children can find both serenity and adventure throughout their lives. We describe the natural world as beautiful, powerful, and resilient. We wait to share the challenge of climate change with the children until they are older. For now, we foster a relationship with the Earth.
The Schoolhouse worked with All Energy Solar to have solar panels installed on our roof. We are excited to be running on renewable energy and modeling a lower-impact way of living.
9. We are BRAVE & KIND, HARDY & FREE.
BRAVE | To be brave, children first need to trust themselves. At the Schoolhouse, we encourage a child’s developing self-efficacy and self-regulation so that they feel they can make a difference in the world around them and be their best selves. When a child believes in who they are, they trust themselves to be brave. Brave to try a new skill. Brave to adventure to a new part of the forest. Brave to help a friend.
KIND | Kindness is a commodity the world needs more of. We guide children to consider their actions towards others and the natural world around them. Is it kind? What would be kind? How does if feel to be treated kindly? How do you feel when you share kindness? Understanding the grace of giving kindness and the gift of receiving it as a framework for interacting with others is a guidepost for how we teach children to interact with one another.
HARDY | We play outside in all weather. We delight in snowfall, splash in puddles, pretend in fog, and dance in the wind. The children learn through experience that there is great benefit after great effort. It takes a lot of effort to get geared up to go play when it is -20 degrees F, but the crispness of the air, the sparkle of the sun on the snow, and the glee in sliding down the hill make all the layering, zipping, and tucking worth it.
FREE | Inspired by the Cedarsong Way, children at the Schoolhouse are free to pursue their interests, free to move their bodies, free to follow their rhythms, free to share their feelings, and free to be themselves. In this freedom, the children notice their differences, and those differences are good. They are free to enjoy their childhoods wrapped in nature, peace, joy, and discovery.
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