Post by Dana Holahan, All Our Kin’s Professional Development Coordinator
Last Thursday All Our Kin held its last Network meeting of the school year, titled Walking to Learn in the Outdoor Classroom. This was a great opportunity for family child care providers to spend time outside enjoying the warm weather, relaxing, and learning about fun, easy, and inexpensive ways to educate the children in their program about the wonder of nature. Our proposal to the attendees was this: Since we’ve been talking so much about getting your kids outdoors lately, we thought it would be fun to get YOU outside.
We met in New Haven’s beautiful Wooster Square Park. After a delicious picnic dinner and some much-needed socializing, we began the workshop by discussing the importance of taking children outside as often as possible, ideally every day. First, we asked providers why they thought it was important, and many participants gave enthusiastic responses about how the children in their care were learning to track the direction of the wind by watching ripples in the trees, and how the children were learning about community by growing vegetables and donating them to senior citizens in the neighborhood.
We talked about how children learn by exploration, using their entire bodies to explore the world around them. Very young children use their five senses to learn and experience the world. They smell flowers growing in the spring, touch the textures of tree bark, taste the fruits and vegetables growing in their gardens, see the changing colors and light as the seasons shift.
Nature and the outdoors are optimal “classrooms” for children, even our youngest infants and toddlers. We reminded providers that almost everything they do indoors can be taken outdoors – reading, painting, water play, dramatic play, counting, talking, moving, and investigating. Being outside is a wonderful way to incorporate a science-based curriculum, as there are many different things children can observe, make scientific inquiries about, and track over time. The natural world is full of wonder, joy, and curiosity – just what learning should be all about!
Understanding and appreciating how the world works makes it more likely that children will want to care for and protect nature, the environment, and the planet. Additionally, exposure to nature can reduce stress levels in children by as much as 28%, and outdoor exercise improves mental and physical well-being more so than indoor activity.
Of course, a key component of All Our Kin Network meetings is doing hands-on activities and sharing ideas that providers can bring back to their own family child care program. At this meeting, providers were assigned a letter of the alphabet and then embarked on an “alphabet scavenger hunt” to find as many things as possible that began with that letter. We then discussed different ways providers could adapt activities like this one for children of various ages.
The activity that providers most enjoyed, however, was watercolor painting. The idea behind this activity was to have providers find something beautiful in the natural surroundings of Wooster Square, then sit down and paint their creative interpretation of it. We first presented several different watercolor techniques they could experiment with. Then, everyone walked around, settled in, and began to paint. Each provider looked at ease and peaceful, as though they were seasoned painters who had been creating watercolors in the park for years. The results were spectacular!
At the end of the meeting, everyone was in high spirits and said they felt very relaxed, rejuvenated, and de-stressed. One provider told us, “We felt united with nature. It was very relaxing.” Another commented, “Even though we were tired [from a long day working with kids], we were able to relax.” Another said, “The change of scenery was very relaxing.” We responded, “This is the positive effect that nature has on people. This is exactly why children benefit from spending time outdoors.”