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Nature’s way: Partnership allows kindergartners to experience growth in 600-acre setting

Getting back to nature has taken on a whole new meaning for several University of Wisconsin-Green Bay pre-service teachers.

Not only are Naomi Khang, Taylor Pomplun, Michiela Schwoerer and Delaney Splittgerber, who are enrolled in the two-credit course Environmental Education in K12 Schools, experiencing Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary for themselves, but also through the eyes of four-year-olds.

It’s part of a unique cooperative venture involving the University, Green Bay Area Public School District, city of Green Bay and the 600-acre nature setting.

“It got going during the 2012-2013 school year,” UW-Green Bay’s Associate Dean of Health, Education, and Social Welfare, Scott Ashmann, recalled. “There were multiple meetings that took place to meet all of the policies and procedures that needed to be met put into a program like this for the different partners. The district was looking for more four-year-old kindergarten placements on the east side of Green Bay. The sanctuary wanted to create a program that would get young students interested in environmental education. The university was looking for more ways to reach out to our community partners.”

It’s been a learning process for all involved along the way.

“This year we opened a second classroom and have 56 children in the morning and afternoon,” Green Bay Area Public School District Director of Preschool Programs Mary McCabe revealed. “It’s a program that we’ve never advertised; it’s really just spread by word of mouth.”

According to McCabe, Oak Learning Center, the Monday -Thursday program “engages children in highly interactive outdoor learning, encouraging them to explore the world around them, while acquiring important skills that will prepare them for kindergarten.”

“The students are learning a passion for all living things,” Oak Learning Center teacher Natalie Shihoski said. “They develop within them the need and want to take care of plants and animals. I hope they’re growing up to protect our natural world.”

They’re doing so by getting out of the typical classroom setting.

“They spend 60-80 percent of their time outside,” McCabe pointed out. “They might go on a nature hike and talk about hibernation or migration. On the hike, they become familiar with the types of trees and talk about the seasons. Having the sanctuary available is different than just being able to go outside at any other school. All of the resources are there.”

Preservice teachers support the teacher and naturalist from Bay Beach in each of the three-hour sessions split up between mornings and afternoons. The class requires them to complete six assignments — two lessons taught to subsets of at least 4-6 students, two others related to Wisconsin environmental education standards and Project Wild training and mid-term and final reflections.

One of those four is senior Taylor Pomplun of Dalton, who is majoring in Early-Middle Childhood Education. Her plan is to student teach in the spring and upon May graduation, teach in a small, rural school near Green Bay.

“Education through nature can be very exciting,” she said. “Children are still learning the same material as those in a traditional school, just in a different way. They love the outdoors and exploring new things.”

Like fruit bats.

“We learned about them around Halloween,” Pomplun said. “Fruit bats are on exhibit at the sanctuary. The students were extremely excited and asked many questions. It was great to see them so interested and wanting to learn more!”

Shihoski leans on her UW-Green Bay support team of Splittgerber and Pomplun.

“They are talking with the children when we are hiking and when we stop and learn about an animal. For example, they might say ‘There’s a turkey. Turkey starts with a T.’’’ They draw a T in the ground with chalk or with a stick in the snow. ‘How many turkeys do you see? Let’s count to three.’’’ Reinforcing the literacy and math that go along with the natural things we are studying.”

“We talk about children developing in four different domains,” Ashmann said. “Academic, physical, social and emotional. Emotional is that connection to nature — developing the love of and respect for it. If they do that at a young age, hopefully that will continue with them for the rest of their lives.”

“It’s a unique set-up because we technically hire and oversee the full-time teachers and naturalists but the teachers also have to have their license from the school district,” Oak Learning Center Director James Andersen said.

“We do our curriculum in six-week chunks,” he continued. “So, we’re looking ahead to what the next focus is. In winter, we modify accordingly. If we’re talking about the weather, maybe we do different types of clouds. How weather works. Digging down another layer and getting into how animals’ fur changes. We just relate it to whatever season we are in. Nature gives us what it gives us.”

Both children and teachers love the experience.

“The children are so open, adventurous and willing to do whatever, especially in nature,” Andersen observed. “They’re wide-eyed, have lots of energy and see things differently than we do. It is something to see their eyes light up when they see an animal or a snake slithering across a pathway they run into. All of these teachable moments all of the time are really cool.”

“It’s fabulous,” McCabe agreed. “There are lots of school districts that call us and ask for tours of this site because they want to see if they have the resources in their communities that they might be able to try to replicate it at least a little bit. The children love it. There are so many acres and so much to learn.”

That’s achieving the goal Ashmann was part of setting up.

“Programs like this are becoming more common across the United States,” he said. “Five years ago, they were very rare. This idea of nature-based early childhood education is something that lots of people are seeing the benefits of, so more and more programs are being created.”

By freelance writer Jay Lillge, for UW-Green Bay’s Office of Marketing and University Communication

Click thumbnails to enter slideshow view or view the album on Flickr.

– Photos by Dan Moore, Marketing and University Communication