Two months ago, Wildwood Nature School, like many other schools and childcare facilities, temporarily shut its doors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Not wanting to lose the connection I had with the children in our program and then connection they had with each other, I threw myself into virtual programming. In addition to posting activity suggestions and millions of links for parents to our Facebook page, I hosted a daily story time session on Zoom.
Since the forest does not come with Internet connectivity, my initial efforts at virtual programming ignored that aspect of our preschool. But in dropping the nature part of our program, I had dropped a significant piece of how our class relates to each other. By observing nature, commenting on it and exploring our questions about it together, we built connections to each other as a group. I realized that nature needed to continue to be the center of our school, even when the school was happening through screens and online.
I came up with a number of ways to create connections and shared experiences with nature that are easy to replicate in any preschool program, even those that are not nature-focused.
Start a Collection
Each week, I encourage families to photograph the nature they are observing as they play outside, go on hikes or just stare out the window. I created a space on our Facebook page to collect the photographs in a series of galleries. These galleries are easy to create on Instagram, SeeSaw and most other online classroom platforms.
The first week I snapped a few pictures of insects in my yard and the school’s garden and asked families to capture photos of insects to add to our gallery. The following week, we focused on plant life. The posts are still live, and children can add to them at any time. They do not need to remain on the current week’s gallery. To extend the learning, families are encouraged to do a little research on the wildlife they are seeing. Websites like Bugfinder, Dave’s Garden or the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Identification or apps like iNaturalist can help children and families with identification and factual information.
Plant Something Together
Last week, we planted bean seeds together. I placed a Lima bean seed on a wet paper towel and then slid both into a clear plastic sandwich bag. I provided instructions so that children could plant their own beans and demonstrated my process during our morning story time session on Zoom. Families were reminded that any bean seed they have on hand will work and were offered the opportunity to stop by the school for a seed pick up if they needed one.
During that first Zoom session, I also showed children the journal I was keeping with drawings and observations about my bean seed. Whenever something interesting happens with my seed, I plan to bring it and my journal to our Zoom session. The children will have an opportunity to talk about whether their own beans. We can share the progress of our bean’s growth in much the same way we might have done had we been planting something together in the real classroom.
Go on a Scavenger Hunt
The possibilities for scavenger hunts in nature and their tie-ins to academic learning goals are almost endless. So far, I have asked the children to go on a shape scavenger hunt; challenged them to collect all of the colors of the rainbow from items in nature; and to find letters of the alphabet “hidden” in the shape of branches, seeds, other natural items. Children could go on a counting hunt, where they find objects that come in groups of threes or twos or take a tally sheet with them to count the number of birds, insects or different types of trees they find.
These scavenger hunts connect with our morning story times in two ways. Sometimes we read a story and then use it as a springboard for brainstorming a scavenger hunt list. For example, after we read Dr. Seuss’s “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” I asked the children what sounds they might hear if they took a walk outside. I copied their ideas into a list and then posted it to our Facebook page as the scavenger hunt for the day. Another way to way to connect the scavenger hunts to online learning would be to have the children bring one item from their hunt to share with the group during a Zoom session.
Ultimately, infusing my virtual programming with ways to connect children with nature also forged the classroom connection I was missing when we moved to remote learning. Nature is also easily accessible for families and it’s versatility presents endless opportunities for curricular tie-ins and engagement.
Resources: Links to Plant and Animal Identification Sites https://www.insectidentification.org/bugfinder-start.asp https://www.arborday.org/trees/index-identification.cfm?TrackingID=404 https://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/