Simple Ways to Create Classroom Community with Nature
by Nicole Fravel
As preschool teachers, we know the importance of creating a supportive classroom community. A strong community feeling supports the social and emotional work of preschool – learning to work and play as a member of a group, regulating emotions and negotiating with peers.
When children trust the teacher and each other, they are empowered to contribute ideas, share problems, work toward common goals and take personal risks.This work of creating and maintaining a classroom community happens every day.
But for school year programs like mine, September and the beginning of a new school year is a critical time for community building. To create a sense of group cohesiveness at Wildwood Nature School, we use a few simple activities indoors and out that can easily transfer to more traditional settings.
Share a Meal Outside
At our preschool, we eat most of our meals outside. Sharing a snack or lunch outside can be a bonding experience, particularly for children who are used to eating outside. Ayelet Fishbach, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, found that people feel closer to others when they are eating the same foods. And that closeness builds trust and cooperation. So make it a special occasion with picnic blanket or a table with a real table cloth and encourage the children’s conversation.
Right now, my group’s favorite topics include what they are planning to be for Halloween, their favorite sea creatures and superheroes.
Bring Nature to Show and Tell
Show in Tell is supposed to be a tried and true way to encourage children to build relationships and communication skills, but I have struggled with it over the years. When I have had a traditional show and tell time built into the schedule, children tend to bring in a toy or stuffed animal and repeat some stock phrase like “It is special to me because I like it.” If I tried to pull out additional information with questions, “What do you like about it?” “How do you play with it?”
I was met with shrugs or one word answers and the rest of the group found it difficult to continue listening.For a while I tried matching show and tell to the curriculum. For example, I encouraged everyone to bring in something with a pattern or with rectangles or that starts with a particular letter/sound, thinking that we would then all have a common language to start our conversations.
It felt like a homework assignment for parents and didn’t lead to any less scripted phrases from the children.We now have a “anytime” show and tell policy. Children bring natural treasures from home or family hikes (or sometimes from the front of the school) to the school whenever they find something interesting. They share their object with the group, where they found it, what is exciting about it and then have the option of adding it to our shelf of treasures at school.
Interest is high for the child who found the object because it is “their” treasure.Interest is generally high from the other children as well for a number of reasons. First, there is very little down time. Only one or maybe two children share an object at a time, so the other children are not expected to listen to 10 – 20 classmates before getting their turn to share. Second, since the objects are natural, they are naturally unique. They are treated like treasures by all of the children, who clamor to touch them and ask questions.
To kick things off, the teacher can bring in his or her own treasure, share its story and start a “special treasure” basket that sits on a shelf available to everyone in the classroom. After the teacher shares, children can be encouraged to be on the lookout for treasures they can bring to the class.
As these treasures become loose parts for classroom exploration and play, they are also a tangible way to show that everyone contributes to the classroom community.
Become a Caretaker of Nature
Sharing common goals and responsibilities is the mark of a well-functioning community. Caring for a classroom pet, a class garden, indoor plants or an outdoor sapling provides the group with a common responsibility. At our preschool, we have a gecko, chickens and a vegetable garden that need tending year round. We also bring in additional seedlings or animals as our investigations touch on them.
Each new addition requires a class conversation about its needs and how we plan to care for them. The children are partners in determining how each responsibility is managed, whether they rotate among the children each day or are assigned based on individual interests. For example, not every child is comfortable picking up live worms to feed to the gecko or gathering eggs from the hens’ nests, and some children have a special affinity for scrub brushes and bubbles.
Building a trusting community of children and teachers early in the year supports children in making friends, understanding group dynamics and feeling comfortable enough to take the risks necessary for learning. And having these foundational relationships in early childhood will help children have the confidence to create them again in school, work and their adult family lives.