We are enjoying all the colors of fall as peak fall color hits across Northern Illinois! We asked NINPA members what leaf play looks like in their classrooms and playspaces.

#LeafPlayIs… Reading Connections

  • In fall we read books like Going on a Leaf Hunt by Steve Metzger and Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert. Both of these books inspire so much fun leaf play and exploration. They are the perfect way to start a fall day! – Kathryn, The Children’s Garden at The Morton Arboretum
  • We make leaf books with leaves we find on our hikes and stickers that help identify colors, leaf types, and descriptors like smooth, bumpy, rough – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center/Park Ridge Park District

#LeafPlayIs… Big Motion

  • Raking and jumping in the piles – Megan, Little Trees Early Learning Program at The Morton Arboretum
  • Running through large piles of leaves and tossing them into the air – Marilyn, Morton College
  • Adding leaves into our parachute play – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage

#LeafPlayIs… Scientific Exploration

  • Take small rakes into the woods to “clear a path” which always uncovers the wonderful world of decomposers under the leaf litter – Beth, Hobson School
  • Find different colors of plants and leaves – Kathryn, The Children’s Garden at The Morton Arboretum
  • Create tree “autograph books” bark rubbing and leaf rubbings – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage
  • Make a leaf kite and watch how it dances in the wind – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage
  • Put a green leaf between two squares of fabric (I use an old sheet cut up) and pound the chlorophyll out of it. This makes a very nice leaf stain on the fabric square and coincides with how leaves are losing their green color and the fall colors are now showing. (It also smells wonderful!)  – Marji, FCC Weekday Preschool

#LeafPlayIs… Community

  • Lay down under the trees and watching the leaves fall down and talking about the colors we see.  It’s a simple activity, but always one that invites us to share in a moment of joy, wonder, and connection – Beth, Hobson School
  • Working together to rake big enough piles to jump in, taking turns jumping, and burying our friends and teachers in the piles (wait to jump until everyone is out!) – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center/Park Ridge Park District

#LeafPlayIs… Math

  • Examine different shapes of leaves and measure smallest to largest leaf that we can find – Marji, FCC Weekday Preschool
  • Leaf sorting by shapes and colors – Sean, Chicago Park District
  • Sorting number leaves into numerical order and making 10 with different pairings – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage
  • Using leaves and other natural materials for sequencing and patterns – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage
  • Hanging Tree towers – leaves stacked biggest to smallest on a skewer – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage

#LeafPlayIs… Artistic

  • Creating Fairy Houses – Sean, Chicago Park District
  • Collecting fallen natural materials such as leaves, tree seeds and use that to create art – Kathryn, The Children’s Garden at The Morton Arboretum
  • Making self portraits out of natural items – Jennifer, Prairie School of DuPage
  • Print-making with paint and leaves – Beth, Hobson School

#LeafPlayIs… Sensory

  • I also usually create a fall sensory bin filled with tree seeds and leaves, I allow the children to add their own collections to this – Kathryn, The Children’s Garden at The Morton Arboretum
  • Using playdough with leaves, acorns and pinecones – Beth, Hobson School

#LeafPlayIs… Building Dexterity

  • Cutting leaves with scissors – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center, Park Ridge Park District
  • Hanging leaves with clothespins – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center, Park Ridge Park District
  • Sewing leaves together to make leaf garland – Beth, Hobson School

How do you play with leaves in your program or program space?

13 Pumpkin Play Activities

It’s Pumpkin Season! We counted down to Halloween with #13DaysOfPumpkinPlay, shared by NINPA members. Not a member yet? Follow this link to sign up – registration is free and easy.

1. Prickly Pumpkins

Pumpkins + mallets + golf tees = prickly pumpkins! While having fun, we are also navigating tool use, exploring pumpkin parts, and working our fine motor skills and hand eye coordination. – Molly, Wildwood Nature Preschool/Park Ridge Park District

2. Pumpkin Geoboards

Art, math, shapes, physics, fine motor… but most importantly, FUN! – Megan, Little Trees Early Learning Program at The Morton Arboretum

3. Pumpkin Playdough

Warm pumpkin play dough on a chilly fall morning? Yes, please!

We’re following recipes, seeing how mixing ingredients together makes them change, and using our big strong muscles to mix that dough. Then add some loose parts for a funny pumpkin face – or anything else our hearts desire! – Megan, Little Trees Early Learning Program at The Morton Arboretum

4. Pumpkin Loose Parts

Add pumpkins as loose parts in your classroom, for exploring and painting, as well as taking along when going outdoors. “Heavy” lifting of pumpkins invites children to be strong and placement and stacking challenges them to explore with balance and gravity. – Marilyn, Morton College

5. Pumpkin Patch Dramatic Play

Pumpkins and gourds and a cash register to ring up their “purchases”. No cash register? An old corded phone set or a calculator can work in a pinch.

Have you had a pumpkin patch in your program? What did your students use as currency? Did they use baskets or shopping carts or grocery bags to carry away their purchases? – Megan, Little Trees Early Learning Program at The Morton Arboretum

6. Pumpkin Sink or Float

Do Pumpkins Sink or Float? We tested our pumpkins and gourds in our pond, but we’ve brought this activity inside in the past when it was a bit chillier. (And sometimes you have to test to see if pumpkin pieces float just as well in the middle of the pond as they do on the side – which is when we bust out the water balloon slingshots!)

Have you explored sink and float with pumpkins in your classroom? What have your students noticed? Do big pumpkins float the same way little pumpkins do? Have any pumpkins ever sunk in your experiments? – Kristen, Wildwood Nature Center, Park Ridge Park District

7. Rolling Pumpkins

Time to roll those pumpkins down the hill! Race and chase (and even roll) after them! – Jen, Wildwood Nature Center, Park Ridge Park District

8. Gutter Gourds

We rolled big on the hill, now it’s time to roll small on the gutters. How do gourds roll best? Are any gourds too big to fit? We take turns running after our gourds or we gather a bunch at the top of our ramp and send them down as fast as we can! When gutters are unavailable, our gourds or pumpkins are too big, or when we have a lot of kids exploring gravity at the same time, we set up a cardboard ramp or a table with one side collapsed as a makeshift ramp instead. – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center, Park Ridge Park District

9. Pumpkin Tools

We play with scoops, carvers, hand drills, and more. How do you use pumpkin tools in your classroom?

10. Pumpkin Guts Exploration

After carving a LOT of pumpkins, we have lots of guts leftover! Perfect for a gut sensory bin for lots of scooping and seeds.

11. Pumpkin Puzzles

Explore shapes and make matches (and feed seeds through the holes for some fine motor fun too!) – Karly, Wildwood Nature Preschool/Park Ridge Park District

12. Pumpkin Soup

We use tools from our mud kitchen and water to make “pumpkin soup” and “pumpkin tea” [not pictured: the indoor configurations of this activity and the many towels that are needed]. Sometimes we add cornstarch to make pumpkin oobleck! – Cara, Wildwood Nature Center/Park Ridge Park District

13. Plant Pumpkin Seeds

Can’t get enough of pumpkin play? It’s time to bury those seeds and wait for the pumpkins and gourds to grow again next year!

What do you do with your leftover pumpkin parts?

Thank you to all the NINPA members who sent in pictures and contributed great ideas for our Pumpkin Play week. There are so many more great ideas to share. What are your favorites?

Standards in the Snow

The world is blanketed in pristine white this week at Wildwood Nature Center. At first, the toddlers stand frozen and stare in wonder. Then they cautiously begin to explore and react with surprise when the cold snow crunches beneath their feet.  The preschool students are a bit older and they have seen this phenomenon before. They eagerly shovel the snow, pushing it to and from, gathering it up into mounds and snowballs. The kindergarteners are old pros at making snowmen and digging forts, at identifying tracks and balancing on their knees as they ride sleds down the hill.  The white landscape is a hive of activity for all ages. There is a rich tapestry of play – and of learning.

Children eagerly decorate the white canvas of snow with paint brushes dipped in colored water (water colors or food dye work equally well) to create their temporary masterpieces.  The color doesn’t make a straight line, even when you use the same brushstroke you would use on paper, and they wonder about that. One student changes the way she paints – small dots like a pointillism artist allow her to make the smiling outline she desires.  Bulky gloves are an additional challenge for this particular child- and while painting outdoors she’s retraining her body to do a familiar task, in a challenging setting, building on self-efficacy and resilience. Some children prefer to paint with the brushes, while others are drawn toward the streams of color that come from squeeze bottles, syringes, droppers, or spray bottles.  Each brings its own set of challenges to overcome. The ground is stained with different colors, a vibrant picture of learning in action.

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards
25.A.ECd Visual Arts: Investigate and participate in activities using visual arts materials
26.B.ECa Use creative arts as an avenue for self-expression.
30.C.ECa Exhibit eagerness and curiosity as a learner.
30.C.ECb Demonstrate persistence and creativity in seeking solutions to problems.
30.C.ECc Show some initiative, self-direction, and independence in actions.
30.C.ECd Demonstrate engagement and sustained attention in activities

The snowflakes drift down onto frozen pieces of black paper, foam or felt, or even coats and gloves.  We observe their shapes. Some older students choose to consult a chart to “match” the snowflakes to their different types.  All wonder at the swift disappearance of the tiny crystals under our hot breaths. What happens to the snow when we breathe on it?  When we take it inside? When we put it in little baggies? Scientific thoughts are spinning.

The watertable has frozen, filled with leaves and woodchips, water and old toys that should have been put away last class but didn’t quite make it back into the building.  Little hands chip away using sticks, rocks, and other woodchips. A discussion begins on the best way to release the debris from its icy prison. The cup of colored water some friends have been painting with makes its way over to the excavation site.  A request for warm water and squirters is granted. And when the toys are rescued, students fill bowls with pinecones, rocks and sticks. We cover these treasures with water and leave them outside to freeze again – tomorrow’s excavations.

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards
10.A.ECa With teacher assistance, come up with meaningful questions that can be answered through gathering information.
10.B.ECb Make predictions about the outcome prior to collecting information, with teacher support and multiple experiences over time.
11.A.ECa Express wonder and curiosity about their world by asking questions, solving problems, and designing things.
11.A.ECc Plan and carry out simple investigations.
11.A.ECd Collect, describe, compare, and record information from observations and investigations.

Rulers accompany the kindergarteners on their hike.  They measure the height of the snow in different areas, and wonder, “Why is there more snow over here right off the walking path?  Why is the walking path clear?” Someone equates it to the snow plow they watched clearing their street yesterday. Indeed, the maintenance crew has come through with their own mini-plow.  But did they plow the area under the big spruce tree? Why is there such a thin layer of snow here? The ruler shows the difference – the numbers are much smaller here than they were right next to the path.  

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards
6.D.ECb Describe comparisons with appropriate vocabulary, such as “more”, “less”, “greater than”, “fewer”, “equal to”, or “same as”.
7.A.ECc Use vocabulary that describes and compares length, height, weight, capacity, and size.
7.C.ECa With teacher assistance, explore use of measuring tools that use standard units to measure objects and quantities that are meaningful to the child.

We take out the sleds each day.  The older students race through the deep snow to get to the top of the hill where they will share their sleds, two or three to a group.  A pair try lying on top of each other, “Do you feel safe?” a teacher asks. “Yup!” both reply and they prepare to take their run down this steep mountain. They wait for the perfect moment – when no kids are crossing their path – to take off.  They need a little push which a passing friend provides!

One younger student asks a teacher to join her.  She’s feeling a little scared. One student waits impatiently for another friend to join him on the sled.  Downhill is easy, but – as he discovers as he walks up the hill holding one end of the sled as his friend supports the other side – teamwork makes the uphill job much easier.  As the kindergarten class joins the younger group, there is excitement in the air. The boisterous kindergarteners calm down just a little around the much smaller two year olds.  They patiently agree to go down the hill more slowly, and wait to practice their more daring tricks until the twos have returned to their classroom, piling onto a sled or two to be pulled back the daunting distance to their classroom door.  Soon the lift will be unnecessary, as their little legs gain the strength and stamina of their older peers.

The snow is no longer pristine, trodden down by stomping boots and snow angels, dotted here and there with painted colors and the mounds of attempted snowmen.  What looks like easy fun is hard work for these developing young bodies. That work will grow their coordination, their motor skills, their cooperation and communication, and their appreciation of the world around them.  Everyone is immersed in play. And everyone is learning.

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards
19.A.ECa Engage in active play using gross- and fine-motor skills.
19.A.ECb Move with balance and control in a range of physical activities.
19.A.ECc Use strength and control to accomplish tasks.
19.B.ECa Coordinate movements to perform complex tasks.
19.B.ECb Demonstrate body awareness when moving in different spaces.
19.B.ECc Combine large motor movements with and without the use of equipment
19.C.ECa Follow simple safety rules while participating in activities.
20.A.ECb Exhibit increased levels of physical activity
21.B.ECa Demonstrate ability to cooperate with others during group physical activities.
22.A.ECc Identify and follow basic safety rules.
31.A.ECe Develop positive relationships with peers.
31.B.ECa Interact verbally and nonverbally with other children.
31.B.ECb Engage in cooperative group play.
31.B.ECc Use socially appropriate behavior with peers and adults, such as helping, sharing, and taking turns.

Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards can be found at the Illinois State Board of Education website

About the Author

Cara Ruffo is a Program Naturalist at the Park Ridge Park District’s Wildwood Nature Center, and Media Manager for NINPA

How to find the right nature-based preschool…

While families are currently looking for programs, we thought it was time to update this blog with some new tips.

Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association

So you are interested in enrolling your child in a nature preschool, but you don’t know exactly what to look for.  Well, each nature-based program can differ quite significantly.  Some programs hold classes outside all day with little to no indoor space.  Some programs bring outdoor elements into their existing classroom and extend the outdoor time by utilizing a nature-play space.  Curriculum can range from play-based to emergent interest to planned inquiry units.  Finding the right fit for your family is a personal choice.  Here are some things to look for or some questions to ask while on your tour:

  1.  What is the educational philosophy of the school? Does it support frequent and prolonged experiences in nature?
  2. How are the local community and environment reflected in the program and curriculum?
  3. What is the educational background of the staff?  Have they had formal training in early childhood education as well as…

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A Nature Preschool How-To Guide for Sit-Spots

Sit-spots are exactly what they sound to be: a spot in which you sit upon.  Sit-spots are an excellent way to slow down, connect with nature. They can be a time of solace, creativity, reflection, relaxation and so much more. Sit-spots are a mindful way for any age to check-in and to be present in the moment, easing life’s stressors as you settle-in to the natural world around you.  So how does one go about acquiring a “sit-spot” and what exactly does one do there? Let’s find out!

Choosing Your Sit-Spot

The best kind of sit-spot is one that your child feels comfortable-in and familiar with. So, you’ll want to choose a natural area that is easily accessible and preferably in a space that you can visit frequently and regularly. The idea is that your sit-spot should be easy and quick to get to! A sit-spot can be just about anywhere in the great outdoors: in your yard, a schoolyard, a public park, an open grassy area, or a patch of prairie or woods in your neighborhood! Look for a spot that has natural affordances that catch your eye; like trees, rocks, grasses, shrubs, water, plants, flowers, and maybe a view. 


Don’t forget that trees make for great backrests and large rocks can easily become seats! Try cutting up an old yoga mat or camping tarp to create a one-of-a-kind seat to go on the ground! You can have one big family sit spot, or individual sit-spots.  Do what works best for you, there is no right or wrong way for you or your child to choose a sit-spot.

When to Visit Your Sit-Spot and How to Settle In
Try to visit your same sit-spot once a week or for however long is convenient for you! We recommend beginning with just five minutes and building from there. Want to spend more time in your sit-spot? Go ahead, why not! Spending time in your sit-spot no matter how much or how little, is about giving you and your child the opportunity to be present, to relax, and to find solitude and solace in nature.

When you arrive at your sit-spot, you’ll want to settle in by taking some deep breaths. Encourage your child to pretend to smell a flower and blow out birthday candles as they breath deeply, all the while saying out loud, “Smell your flower, and blow out your candle!” for an added visual cue. 

So Now What?
Once you find your sit-spot, cozy-up and settle in, what you do with your time there is totally up to you! There are many ideas and activities to explore and we’ve shared some insider tips on each one below. Just remember, visiting a sit-spot on a regular basis is about giving you and your child the opportunity to be present and to relax. So even if all you do is close your eyes and breath, you’re doing just fine! 

Ideas and Activities to Explore While in Your Sit-Spot: 

  • Sensory Checklist: Go through all five of your senses! Note the smell, touch, sight, sound and even taste if there is anything safe to do so! OR skip the senses and take a sky break, or even just close your eyes. 
  • Storytelling: Ask your child to tell you a story, and write down their words for a one-of-a-kind story experience. Added bonus, ask your child author if they would also like to be the illustrator and draw pictures for their story!
  • Animal Interactions: 
    • Sprinkle bird seed near your sit-spot or hang a bird feeder and wait patiently!
    • Bring along a magnifying lens and look for insects on the ground. 
  • Take along a picnic and have a special outdoor kind of snack for the day. 
  • Journaling: Take along a small note pad or sketch book! Don’t have one? Try making one with recycled materials around the house. 
    • Sketch images of what you see around you and beneath you at your sit-spot.
    • Sound Mapping: Draw an “X” to represent you in the center of your page. Then write or draw what you hear around you, in relation to your position.


About the Author

Sarah Sheldon is a Lead Teacher at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool and Advisor of Professional development for NINPA.