Back in 2003, when our current building and Nature Preschool opened the concept of a Nature Preschool was relatively new and unknown. We brought in one of the few experts in the country to lead our program. Prior to coming to Schlitz Audubon, our first Nature Preschool Director, Patti Ballie, taught early childhood environmental classes at the Shaker Lakes Nature Center and started The Early Childhood Outdoors Institute at Fontenelle Nature Association. Patti is still heavily involved with Nature-based Early Childhood Education and is seen as one of the leaders in the nation.
The History of Nature-based Teaching
When we opened our Nature Preschool, teaching children through a nature-based lens was hardly a new idea. Friedrich Fröbel developed the concept of kindergarten in 1840, encouraging young children to literally tend to their own outdoor gardens. In the early 1900s, Maria Montessori promoted the idea that children should care for their environment, which included both indoor and outdoor spaces. Waldorf education places a great deal of value on creativity and imagination, with an equally strong emphasis on natural materials. And the Reggio Emilia approach, which was developed in Italy immediately after World War II, centers on building community and respect and learning through exploration and play. All of these pedagogical principals influenced our original Nature Preschool curriculum back in 2003, and we continue to be guided by them today.
The Nature Preschool Movement
The Nature Preschool movement has grown substantially since 2003. Today, more than 250 Nature Preschools operate throughout the United States, and more have popped up across Europe, especially throughout Great Britain. Educators and administrators from throughout the country and beyond have visited us to learn about topics as varied as our classroom layout, our curriculum, and approaches to assessment.
In 2012, we joined a small group of educators at the Chippewa Nature Center and Preschool in Midland, Michigan, for the first formal Nature Preschool Conference. This conference inspired the creation of the Natural Start Alliance, which is now a branch of the North American Association of Environmental Education. In August of 2018, our teachers attended that same conference in Chicago, which has now grown to more than 350 participants from around the world. This three-day event concluded with a field trip to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, which is considered a flagship program and a source of inspiration to those just starting out. We are proud to have contributed to the best practices guidelines for Nature Preschools across the country and continue to offer our strategies at presentations and workshops, and guidance to others working to start their own nature-based programs.
Our Nature Preschool
As the Nature Preschool movement evolves, we continue to place learning, community, and environmental awareness at the forefront of our curriculum. Inside our three classrooms, 144 students participate in Nature Preschool each year. That means more than 2,000 students in our community have grown up incorporating nature into their daily lives! The ripple effect is that these students go on in life to spread their knowledge and curiosity, whether they’re discovering butterflies, cleaning the beach with their family, or even embarking on a career in conservation.