It’s a brisk, foggy morning as I grab my jacket and run out the door to “help” my father cut wood. I am five years old and am heading straight for the ankle-deep stream that flows through the eight acres of forest behind our home. I sit at my favorite spot next to the stream and feel the soft moss between my fingers, imagining myself a deer, curled up and sleeping soundly until dawn breaks. After the sun warms my face, I decide it is time to cross the stream. I have spent days trying to balance myself on the log that spans the stream, but so far can only accomplish it with the aid of a large walking stick. Today, I am determined to do it on my own. For the next 20 minutes, I try, falling into the shallow water and soaking my boots each time. As I stand in the water, frustrated, I notice two water beetles in front of me and squat down to watch them swim in circles around each other, making patterns in the water that I trace with my finger in the air. As I am about to catch them I hear my father call me. I jump up, yelling, “coming!” and head toward his voice, knowing I will be back soon to conquer the log crossing.

monk gardens preschool

How many of you spent the majority of your childhood exploring the outdoors as I did? My outdoor experience growing up was a key factor in my cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. In the example above, I tested my balance, coordination, and endurance. I learned about disappointment and how to manage frustration with my failings. My experience helped me develop my imagination and observation skills, and manage risk. Finally, because I spent my childhood outside, I found a connection to nature that in turn developed my understanding of conservation. (A Cornell University study demonstrated that children under the age of 11 who have positive experiences in wild nature, tend to develop a strong conservation ethic as adults. Playing outdoors helps create the next generation of conservation leaders.

Every day, the Monk Botanical Gardens’ school and public programs provide outdoor experiences for children. Last fall the Gardens partnered with Marathon County Head Start to provide six half-day field trips to two of their classrooms. This fall the program will continue, serving nine classrooms of 3-5 year-olds, providing over 18 hours of environmental education to 90 students.
This successful partnership has also led the Gardens to begin the development of Marathon County’s first “Sprouts” Nature Preschool, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021. The preschool is founded on the idea that children learn best through play and hands-on experiences. Students will spend at least 80 percent of their time outdoors, guided in exploration and learning by our skilled team of teacher-naturalists.

Academic skills such as pattern recognition, letters, numbers, and colors emerge from a child’s experience–counting birds on the pond, looking for matching colors of flowers and bugs, tracking animal prints in the snow, journaling about nature observations, and more. Combining early childhood education and conservation education is an effective method to prepare children for school and life. Close and constant contact with nature contributes to young children’s motor, sensory, social, emotional, moral, and cognitive development, adding to the child’s physical and mental well-being. The season and the interests of the children will drive the curriculum. By the end of the school year, students will have an intimate connection to nature.

We may never return to a time when children roam freely, exploring the natural world on their own, but we can provide similar experiences to our children within today’s social parameters. The Head Start in the Gardens program and Sprouts Nature Preschool will accomplish just that while nurturing our future conservation leaders.

If you are interested in learning more about the Nature preschool please contact , Elise Schuler at [email protected].

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