I am thrilled to reflect on our first Natural Wonder Summit! With some 85 people in attendance, it was a day full of positive energy, puddles, a smoky campfire, and passionate nature-based early childhood educators.
The New Canaan Nature Center Preschool kindly hosted in New Canaan, CT. The summit took place in their quaint, airy visitor center with lunch tours of buildings that house six nature preschool classrooms. The NCNPS enjoys expansive grounds dotted with evergreens, birch and beech trees, as well as small ponds, old stone walls, an orchard and farm animals. The NCNCP celebrates fifty years as a licensed nature preschool in 2017 – arguably America’s oldest. It was an ideal location to usher in the start of ERAFANS teacher professional development while acknowledging a nature preschool that blazed a trail for so many others.
The day began with a mindfulness hike through the forest, led by staff from NCNCP. Deep breathing, a Tibetan singing bowl, and visualizing activities brought awareness to the senses. Participants concentrated on being present for the day as they discovered mindfulness activities to try with the children in their care.
The keynote presentation was offered by Ken Finch, former director of the New Canaan Nature Center, founder of Green Hearts, and long-time advocate for wild nature play. He shared inspiring words and statistics about nature play and the recent lack thereof, evolutionary-speaking. He pointed out that despite the fears of some parents about young children playing outdoors, 8,000 children are injured each year from flat screen televisions falling over!
Finch asserted that much of the hyper vigilance about dangers in nature is fueled by the constant bombardment of media. Finch argued, however, that these fears are largely unwarranted based on crime statistics that demonstrate declining crime rates over the last fifty years. He humorously ascribed the many benefits of risk-taking in outdoor play, noting that emotional bonds are essential if we want children to grow into adults who care about the natural environment. In his words, he’s “trying to save the world” and giving young children authentic playful experiences in nature is crucial to that goal.
Finch also made a clear distinction between risks (those a child can determine and act on, with real developmental benefits) versus hazards (things a child cannot foresee and present serious injury unless avoided). Participants gathered around the campfire for an informal question and answer session following Finch's remarks.
Workshops explored topics including fire-starting and brewing tea with young children, documentation of skills in nature play, and forest games in the tradition of the Coyote’s Guide to Mentoring. All of the workshops were incredible and engaging! Presenters hailed from organizations representing many of ERAFANS founding members. Each offered a unique lens for outdoor learning which practitioners could approach from any number of settings: nature preschools, forest kindergartens, traditional preschools or day cares, public schools, or nature-based in-home childcare settings.
The day concluded with a plenary speech given by me, Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director of ERAFANS. I shared thoughts centered on three ideas: trust, power and optimism as they relate to nature-based teaching practices and young children. (I will go into greater detail about my plenary in another post!)
The day ended with honors for Jessica Clayton of Riverside Rhymes Nature Play School, who won our first Wonder Award. Dinner, fantastic networking and s’mores rounded out the day. Today we are completing the summit at the Westbrook Nature School - more details to follow on our visit!
If you want to join us for a great training experience like this one, or if you want to host something in your region, just ask. ERAFANS will bring it to your door step!