Preparing Our Birds to Leave the Nest and Thrive in Kindergarten
Most young children have only two distinct worlds: home and school. The Nest at Wheeler offers the opportunity for creating three distinct worlds for them: home, school, and nature. Time spent outdoors is important to a young child’s development in every way. When children in the preschool years are given the means to learn in, about, and with nature, their academic, social, physical, and emotional growth is positively impacted. In fact, research shows that nature-based and traditional preschoolers are equally prepared for Kindergarten. In some areas of learning such as peer interactions, motivation to learn, skill development, creativity, curiosity, and resilience, studies indicate that children who learn in natural settings can have stronger skills entering Kindergarten than children who have attended traditional preschools.
On a recent outing to the woods with my students, they were intrigued by the idea of learning how to build a fort, an activity that offers endless amounts of fun and numerous opportunities to develop team-building, critical thinking, and long term planning skills. Together they organized into a group, imagined a design, negotiated teacher collaboration, sourced materials, tinkered to get their sticks to fit just right, and problem solved until they were satisfied with what they had created. As I participated in and observed the construction process from beginning to end, I noted the incredible amount of ingenuity and STEM thinking these little engineers utilized to transform sticks and branches into a delightful end product. What’s most impressive about this experience is that the process of play supported every area of their learning development.
Once built, their fort became a mini world where their imaginations and creativity brought pretend play to life. From believing they were stink bugs in a den, to cooking meals with moss, sticks, and leaves, to discussing how volcanoes explode with “banking” powder, they were developing complex language skills as they created their own narratives for how they would play. Fort-building provided an opportunity to build a more varied vocabulary and expand oral language skills as they told stories and reported their outdoor discoveries. In thinking about how children will be asked to write stories, fiction and nonfiction, in later years of school, time spent learning in nature during their preschool years will serve as a strong foundation for their future language and literacy development. Students’ innate abilities to bring stories to life in the natural environment will carry over into Kindergarten where they will experience ease with which topics for writing will be generated and imaginations will be fueled.
Play and discovery in the woods contribute to mathematical readiness for Kindergarten and beyond. Children are natural hunters and they love to gather nature’s treasures. With items like sticks, pinecones, rocks, and acorns, they create collections by sorting, comparing, sequencing, counting, and patterning. The engineering required in much of what they assemble is all mathematical in nature with evaluations about length, height, weight, longer than, shorter than, heavier than, etc., all major content areas that they can expect to explore in-depth in Kindergarten.
Children at the Nest particularly enjoy the peace and serenity of nature, especially tuning in to the soundscape of the forest. They hear the birds chirping, the sound of the water flowing through the Runnins River, notice the crickets chirping and the leaves rustling in the winds. Attending to the sounds of nature piques their curiosity and encourages and strengthens listening skills in the classroom setting. In addition, children in nature become keen observers of the short- and long-term changes that happen like the turning of the leaves to the wind changing the direction of the clouds to noticing that the water table in the ephemeral pond is higher after a rainstorm. Honing their observation skills with time spent outdoors delivers many meaningful learning moments to their overall development.
It’s important to note that while learning outdoors supports the development of strong language, literacy, math, and science skills, it also builds strong fine and gross motor skills which positively impact learning in Kindergarten. As children run, jump, climb, and navigate the variation of the outdoor landscape, they are supporting a deeper mind and body connection, building strength and stamina which translates to longer sustained periods of attention during seated learning experiences and writing tasks.
In our program, children are also building strong self-help skills as they learn to manage rain pants and boots and hats, all gear they need to be prepared for outdoor play. As a result, they have several opportunities each day to practice improving these skills that are essential to the Kindergarten readiness process. Learning to pack a backpack in preschool and put on snow gear in the correct order are the building blocks to being able to manage a desk full of materials and execute a multistep project years down the line. The consistency we build into our daily routines and step-by-step support and guidance we provide our students give them the time they need to achieve independence and feel confident and successful.
At the Nest at Wheeler, we focus on creating an educational experience where children can thrive by utilizing our indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly to support the optimum learning environment for our students. Our program balances nature-based learning with more traditional teaching approaches indoors. Children enjoy lessons where they explore writing tools and scissors, count and identify numbers, rhyme, recite the alphabet, recognize and name letters, listen to and discuss stories, create art and so much more. In large and small groups, teacher-directed activities, and child-led experiences, students are learning social skills, motor skills, and reasoning skills, language, math, science, and social studies. The children learn about unity and diversity and we guide them to understand that it’s important to recognize our differences and be accepting of each other. All of these learning experiences ensure that our little birds are well prepared to leave the Nest and thrive in Kindergarten.