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  • Sunday, April 02, 2017 7:39 AM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    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. Click here for more photos.

    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!

  • Tuesday, March 14, 2017 9:40 AM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    From time to time people ask me to recommend books about nature preschools and forest kindergartens. It's tough to narrow down my list to just a few because there are plenty of fantastic resources. Here is my response to one of our members with a short list of great reads:

    Product DetailsIf you are new to approaches in nature-based learning, a must-read is Jon Young, Evan McGown, and Ellen Haas's book the Coyote's Guide to Connecting with Nature. It offers important insight as to the "how" of nature-based learning, and gives several sample activities to try. I especially love the mentoring approach that they describe.

    Erin Kenny's book, Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way, is another resource if you want to learn more about a total nature immersion approach in the United States.

    In terms of starting a nature-based program, David Sobel and Patti Bailie recently published Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. It covers a wide range of topics to help you dig into all aspects of your nature-based program.

    And finally, I love Working in the Reggio Way by Julianne Wurm and Celia Genishi. No matter what philosophy of early childhood education you subscribe to, this book asks practitioners to critically think and reflect on our beliefs and practices. As you move through the exercises in the book, you can easily relate and apply your views about nature-based learning to many aspects of early childhood educations or settings. If you use this book as part of a team or staff, it can be an amazing, trans-formative experience that keeps evolving and deepening your practice over time. It is not written specifically for nature-based educators, but completely applicable. 

  • Wednesday, March 08, 2017 1:35 PM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    Guest blogger Ashley Baker is the director of in-home daycare Doodle Play in Traverse City, Michigan. She shares her experiences engaging young children in healthier eating habits.

    I would be lying if I said our day doesn't revolve around food.

    Our schedule revolves around when we eat, how long it takes to prep meals and the cleanup after. We have some of our best conversations when we are all seated together eating meals.

    At my daycare located in Northern Michigan, we have two large gardens and a chicken/duck area that provides us with lots of fresh fruits, veggies and eggs. The problem for us isn't using the fresh produce when in season, it is making sure we use that produce throughout the year and incorporate it into as many healthy meals for the children as possible.

    To make healthier meals and make our produce last longer, we started incorporating meal prep days into our routine. The kids and families really took to it! We have less produce going to waste and the kids eat better meals throughout the year, thanks to our thoughtful meal preparation and planning.

    My daycare kids love smoothies, and they are a great way to use excess produce. We make and freeze smoothie packs with spinach and berries from the garden. We use organic red tape bananas, too – we simply freeze the peeled bananas and throw them in the smoothie packs. We even freeze avocados in ice cube trays. Smoothies are versatile and can be enjoyed for breakfast or snacks. 

    But it doesn't stop at smoothies. Last week the children and I baked four dozen banana bread muffins. We mashed, measured, counted, mixed and baked. Once cooled we froze the muffins individually (six per bag) and put them in the freezer. We took the muffins out to defrost the night before, so the children ate a homemade breakfast without a lot effort that morning.

    We use bell peppers from the garden for several recipes including fajitas. We make twice baked potatoes and our tomatoes are made into sauces – both easy to freeze and serve later.

    When we're finished with a snack or meal, the children put their food into the compost. Our chickens and ducks pick through the compost, turning it and fertilizing it. This in turn cuts our cost on poultry feed, gives us a rich fertilizer and cuts down on our food waste.

    It's important that children not only see where their food comes from, but also where their food goes. Yes, eggs come from chickens. But using the eggs in muffins or scrambled eggs takes it another step further and helps children understand how natural resources become ingredients for the nutritious foods we eat. It's important to teach these sustainable food habits now, as children discover how our needs are interconnected with nature.

    My hope is that making these connections now will lead to better eating habits, a closer connection and respect for our food and understanding about where it comes from. I hope that the children who call this their second home will grow to make more sustainable decisions about food.

  • Friday, March 03, 2017 2:27 PM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    The learning environment is the physical embodiment of our beliefs about education, young children and our values. Nature-based programs often vacillate between indoor and outdoor spaces. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    1. You can't organize materials without thinking about aesthetics. Plastic bins have a very different feel than woven baskets. Everything we use, including organization aides, sends a message and sets a mood. Opt for natural, rustic, or recycled containers for organizing instead of plastic ones. Consider apple crates, wicker baskets, wooden bowls and trays, canvas bins, or galvanized pails.

    2. Materials should be stored in a way that is accessible and available for young children to independently choose and put away on their own. This empowers children to make choices about what they need, and makes it easier for children to help with clean up. This is a natural way for young children to learn responsibility.

    3. Commercial products for early learning environments are often an explosion of bright yellows, reds and blues. Go for shelves and containers that are wooden or in subdued neutral tones. A room can feel more cluttered than it is simply by having too many bold and contrasting colors everywhere.

    4. Keep a small shed or storage bench for outdoor tools and materials. A wagon is also a great alternative. You are sure to have helpers pull the wagon when you head out for some nature play!

    Author Sandra Duncan published a wonderful book, Rethinking the Classroom Landscape: Creating Environments that Connect Young Children, Families, and Communities in 2016. It features the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, as well as many other outstanding early childhood centers. 

    We communicate the value of learning and our learning materials when they are organized. Young children come to understand this as one way we show respect. When we give care and attention to materials by organizing them and storing them neatly, we demonstrate that we value them. By making materials accessible to the children, we also communicate that we value a child's right to make choices about learning, and that we trust children to use materials properly. A learning environment full of things that are off limits and not to be touched sends an underlying message that children are not trusted or respected.

    When you look at the way you currently store your materials, what do you think you are communicating to young children? Staff? Families? What is one small thing you can do today to improve in this area?

  • Monday, January 16, 2017 1:37 PM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)
    When the temperature dips, there is nothing better than cuddling up with a blanket and a cup of tea. No argument there! But it's still important to get outside daily, grown-ups and children alike. Here are five reasons why:

    1. Sunshine. Vitamin D is perfectly delivered by the sun through our skin. It helps boost the immune system and elevates mood, keeping the winter blues at bay. The amount of sunshine each person needs can vary, but aim for at least 15 minutes a day. 

    2. Fresh Air. When we are cooped up in shared spaces, germs can spread more rapidly. (Yes, many germs are healthy for us, but who wants more exposure to cold and flu germs?) Breathe in the cold, fresh air and take a break from stuffy indoor settings. 

    3. Get Moving. We are more likely to be active when we are outside. Whether it's hiking, inventing winter games, dreaming up spring garden plans or frolicking in a natural play space, we are more likely to exercise when we go outside. 

    4. Wildlife Love. Although many animals are slumbering, there are still plenty of animals to observe in winter, especially birds! Get outside for a dose of winter bird watching and fill up your feeders with seed and suet, too.

    5. Reflect.  Take time for quiet reflection away from the noise of daily life. A peaceful winter walk is a great way to model reflection for young children. Fill your soul with optimism: winter holds nature's eternal promise of spring.

  • Thursday, December 08, 2016 2:28 PM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    By: Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director of ERAFANS

    For those of us working with young children, we know how rewarding the work is. We live to hear their laughter. We revel in those muddy-faced days. Their little messy hands and smiles melt our hearts instantly. There is so much magic and innocence and pure intention in the souls of those sweet little people. Combined with the awe and wonder of nature, we can’t help but have amazing experiences together. Our job is to savor those moments and keep facilitating new ones, chock full of tiny personal victories and sloppy hugs.

    But let’s be honest about the whole picture. There are difficult days. Really, really tough days. Days when you don’t want to hear another complaint from a parent about the snack or hear them ask “are you really going to take them outside today?”. Days when it seems like everyone is oozing and coughing or crying. Sometimes we ask ourselves ‘did I handle that right? Did they actually learn anything today’?

    Dear educators, remember: YES. Even on those difficult days when everyone seems unhappy and chaos feels like it’s taken hold – YES, they are still learning important lessons from us.

    We all know that life isn’t perfect and pleasant all the time. Part of our role is to help children cope with the lumps and bumps along the path. Our kindness and compassion towards a sad child, positive attitude when things don’t go as planned, and ability to re-frame a challenging situation is comforting to young children. This reminds them that no matter what, we can make the best of any situation and take action to make it better. If it means taking a long, deep breath, stepping away to regroup for a moment, or bursting out with a joke or song to lighten the mood, then so be it. We model important social and emotional skills for young children, especially on those tough days. We reassure them that we can get through challenges and there are lots of positive ways to do it!

    So we shouldn’t get discouraged. We must savor this fleeting time with the little ones. During this crazy holiday season, let’s remember to be kind and forgiving of ourselves and those around us, especially our little friends, families and co-workers. The happy moments and the tough ones alike are the stuff of life. This is the real making of compassionate, loving people. We are doing it, one mitten-handed day at a time.

    We can’t wait to gather as a group! Stay tuned for updates about ERAFANS and all of the fantastic professional development we have in store! Our first Natural Wonder Summit will take place at the New Canaan Nature Center in CT on April 1, 2017. We are also coordinating several regional Outdoor Learning Retreats, one of which will be held at the Carroll Community College in MD on Saturday, August 26, 2017. Complete our contact form and we will let you know the minute our registration goes live!

  • Friday, November 04, 2016 2:24 PM | Monica Wiedel-Lubinski (Administrator)

    This week marks the official start of ERAFANS! The founding members have been working diligently for months to move this association forward. We know how valuable our association is for nature preschools, forest kindergartens and the whole range of early childhood settings that also exist in our region. We are committed to making affordable, meaningful, nature-based training accessible to EVERYONE!

    That said, starting a non-profit takes a lot of time and energy. If you can support our cause now, please make a donation.  Very, very soon you will be able to join as an ERAFANS member and keep our good work moving forward.

    Thank you for your positive energy, ideas and support!

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