At the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways.
— Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”
Early this year Christina Bird Loock, with the support of the staff and board, brought a full-time nature-based program, Children-in-Nature, to the Child Care and Learning Center (CCLC) in Rappahannock County.
Although she grew up in Washington, D.C., Christina says she spent a lot of time as a child on her family’s farm in Amissville, where she, her husband and two boys now live. There she discovered her passion for nature, which led her to a master’s degree in environmental management and many years working in outdoor education, including as a National Park Service ranger, at a variety of nature-based camps and at CCLC. Training she took last year in Growing Up Wild — a preschool, nature-based curriculum — led to her proposing the Children-in-Nature Program to the CCLC board, and the program was put in place in February. In early October, I met her there to talk about it.
It’s “really fun,” she says, “the kids love it,” and it “fits perfectly” into CCLC’s nature-friendly curriculum, combining outdoor time with fun and experiential learning. As she points out, research shows that experience combined with reading increases a child’s comprehension and retention of knowledge more than reading alone. And by exposing children to the natural world early, they’re likely appreciate it more and be physically active throughout their lives.
Children-in-Nature includes discovery walks on trails on the center’s eight acres (which are mostly forested), nature-related crafts, gardening, outdoor-skill acquisition and learning about aspects of nature, such as ecology. “Although I have a plan for each day, often our activities are based on what we discover,” Christina says. The children are encouraged to use all their senses in exploring the natural world on their own and to talk about what they find, she adds, and other developmental learning is integrated into the sessions.
There are two versions of the program: one for infants and toddlers, and one for preschool-age children. Taking children outdoors can have a real positive effect, Christina says. Even the infants relax, and an older child who may be disruptive indoors can be much more focused and helpful when out in nature.
During the growing season, the program alternates between a vegetable garden and the forested trails. In the garden, the children develop fine-motor skills as they dig, plant seeds, weed, water (a popular chore) and make compost. For their efforts, they’re rewarded with being able to pick vegetables right off the plants and eat them, which they really love, Christina says. And research has shown, she says, if you eat healthy foods as a kid, and have fun picking vegetables, “those habits stay with you the rest of your life.”
By October, the garden had mostly gone to seed, enabling the students to see and discuss the whole growing cycle, she says. Ultimately, it’s “all about process, not product,” she says. “The children develop a deep understanding of how plants grow and where food comes from.”
A week later, I accompanied Christina, a class of toddlers and their teachers to the Monarch Waystation, a butterfly garden in a sunny open area adjoining the forest. Christina says Rappahannock County 4-H coordinator Jenny Kapsa contacted her about installing the garden using money Kapsa received through a Fauquier Health Foundation grant. CCLC received a separate grant directly from the foundation to cover some of the expenses of running the Children-in-Nature Program. Along with help from local individuals, these are examples of community involvement that have helped in the nature program’s success, she says. This summer, monarch caterpillars showed up on swamp milkweed planted there, which was really exciting for the children, she adds.
At the garden, Christina engaged her students in identifying the colors of the flowers and examining their seeds. An acorn one little girl had picked up on the way to the garden was added into the discussion.
After escorting the toddlers back to their classrooms, Christina moved on to the preschoolers. Sounding and moving like various animals the children picked, they made their way to the forest. There they practiced a “mindfulness” exercise — sitting “like a frog, listening and watching” for wildlife.
Above the traffic noises on nearby U.S. 211, the children heard insects and birds, each silently pointing a finger into the air as they did. After a few minutes, Christina led them into a discussion about what they’d heard. One day, she says, they were quietly engaged in this exercise and a buck walked by — “a positive consequence of being quiet and mindful,” which are important tools going forward in life.
Next Christina and the preschoolers turned over a large log nearby to see what was underneath — an activity they frequently engage in while reviewing leave-no-trace principles and safety techniques, she says. She emphasizes “respect for all living things,” and that obviously includes her students, to whom the soft-spoken educator also shows great kindness and patience. She continually works to get all of them, from the shyest to the most rambunctious, involved in the activities. And her passion for nature seems to rub off on her students.
Using large, plastic magnifying glasses, the preschoolers eagerly examined worms and insects they found under the log. One little girl, looking a bit squeamish, held a worm briefly before passing it to another child. Christina says that, while she allows her students to handle animals that are safe, she never pressures any child to touch anything they don’t want to. But “when nature is presented as exciting and fascinating, the comfort level and sense of wonder of the children increases very quickly,” she says.
Christina accompanies her students everywhere they go, except on a circular trail not far from the log. That trail is short enough that she can stay in one spot and observe the children, she says, encouraging them to go freely at their own pace on the trail, navigating obstacles on their own. They use things found along the trail as props, she adds, drawing each other into imaginative play.
Christina says she often brings out clipboards and crayons so the children can draw what they see, “really looking at the details.” Sometimes they make patterns out of materials from nature, such as leaves, nuts and stones. Music is woven through the program, with each session starting and closing with a nature-based song, the lyrics adapted to incorporate that day’s nature experience..
Nature-based education for preschools is a “growing thing,” Christina says. CCLC also offers Children-in-Nature in its afterschool program for school-aged children, which includes unstructured free-play time — “essential for the elementary children’s brain development.” If weather is really bad, the children can take advantage of a nature nook inside, which has nature artifacts and books. Even home schoolers can take advantage of Children-in-Nature through a two-hour program “geared to meet the science learning goals of homeschooling families.”
In the summer, CCLC offers nature camps as part of the program, with a variety of activities — from exploring the habitat at the center to taking adventure field trips and much more. (For more about CCLC and Children-in-Nature, visit rappcclc.com.)
© 2015 Pam Owen
Enjoy nature and art at CCLC open house
This Saturday (Nov. 7) from 10 to noon, the Child Care and Learning Center is having an open house in conjunction with the Artists of Rappahannock Studio and Gallery Tour. Parents can create art from nature with their children, learn about the center’s Children-in-Nature Program, take a walk on the center’s trails and enter a free raffle. (For more information, call 540-675-9987.)