Teachers and child care professionals explored the woods on Baraboo’s college campus Saturday, observing the sights, smells and sounds as a child might.
Julie Jarvis, a “Wonder Guide” from the Wisconsin Nature Action Collaborative for Children, encouraged her group — half of them blindfolded and led by a member from the other half — to focus on their senses and experience the world from a child’s perspective.
“The hope is that they can look at the space where they teach and see that there are a lot of opportunities to foster wonder and a connection with nature,” Jarvis said. “It’s great if you have an amazing spot like this, like a forest or prairie, but even if you don’t there’s still nature all around you.”
Young children are sensory learners. When adults provide them with sensory experiences, “it activates their learning” and helps them learn how to organize sensory information, Jarvis said.
‘Amazed’ at interest
In the Nature-Based Early Learning Forum, Jarvis and two other Wonder Guides led outdoor workshops to teach child care workers and parents how to promote children’s curiosity about the world, said Chenoa Ruecking, early childhood education program manager for the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Continuing Education Institute.
Ruecking said she was “amazed” at how many people expressed interest in the event, which is the first of its kind through UW-Platteville. With an original goal of 40 participants, the forum drew 57 child care professionals from all over southern Wisconsin, including La Crosse, Milwaukee, Platteville and Baraboo.
Organizers chose to hold it at UW-Platteville Baraboo Sauk County as part of the university’s efforts to support its branch campuses and develop more programming for them, as well as the Baraboo campus’ “beautiful” setting.
“Part of our mission is to grow the UW-Baraboo campus,” Ruecking said.
She said nature-based early learning is a growing movement in early childhood education, adding that children engage all of their senses when they’re outdoors.
“When they’re out in nature, they’re experiencing the world with their whole body, and they’re able to use their creativity, both for scientific investigation of the world but also for play and creativity in the use of natural materials,” she said. “Many teachers and others have talked about the emotional and calming effects of nature, so that when children are outside, they’re calmer and more focused.”
In the 45 years she’s been working in child care, Sheryl Knuese of Reedsburg, owner of Dragonfly Childcare, said it seems like society has “gotten so far away from letting kids experience life.”
“Kids shouldn’t sit inside,” Knuese said of why she signed up for the forum. “I mean, seriously, does it matter whether you count counters sitting at a table or count pinecones in the woods? I just think kids learn better when they’re out and they’re moving and they’re looking and they’re experiencing and touching.”
“I’m an old grandma,” she added. “I don’t get what we’re doing to our kids. … I thought being a toddler and a preschooler was all about playing and running and learning and learning cooperation with other people. And to me, that’s what being outside lets them do.”
Knuese said she was surprised UW-Baraboo offered the forum. She didn’t know the campus had woods on its grounds but was happy for the chance to use it.
Wonder Guide Jodi Fitzgerald, a preschool teacher from East Troy, also appreciated UW-Baraboo for hosting.
“A lot of the teachers are so eager. They just need this, they need to experience it outside, not just in an indoor classroom where you talk about it but you don’t do it,” Fitzgerald said.
Sense of wonder
In her exercises, participants were given words, like “bumpy,” and had to find something in the woods that matched them. They also played “imagination bingo” where they had to find objects that could be, for example, a fairy’s hat.
“So we’re going from the perspective of an observer to the perspective of a child and trying to establish a sense of wonder and a sense of respect and reverence out in the woods,” she said.
Part of what Fitzgerald wanted participants to take away from the experience was learning to use their environment and their imagination to “create their own little habitat” for the children they serve, wherever that is.
Heidi Duren, another Wonder Guide, said that might entail bringing elements of nature into their home or business, especially for those without a forest in their backyard.
People in her group were “engrossed” in experiencing nature through a child’s perspective, she said. Some made mosaics with flowers, acorns and leaves; others found animal tracks; and some closed their eyes to listen to the forest.
“It’s more how do you embrace the nature with what you have,” Duren said.
Participant Heather Marlette of Baraboo said she learned “a lot” at the forum.
“I think the environment has a huge impact on our kids and on the world around us,” she said. “The more we can teach the young ones, the better off the future’s going to be for everybody.”
UW-Platteville partnered with the Wisconsin Nature Action Collaborative for Children on the event.
Ruecking said the university plans to make it an annual event and may expand it for those who work with older children. This year, participants paid a $69 registration fee, which included breakfast, lunch and materials, but Ruecking said she’d like to find grants to lower the cost.
Though Knuese said she already engages the children she cares for in nature-based activities, she plans to expand her efforts with “imagination bingo.”
“I think that’s amazing, because that just opens up their vocabulary immensely when you give kids stuff like that to do,” she said.