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.

What’s In Your Backpack?

Socrates once said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” So why not be ready when you’re hiking along and one of your students expresses wonder or curiosity? Having a backpack of readily available and easily accessible tools can support child-directed learning and highlight the wonderment and awe of the natural world.

Tools provide children the opportunity to do serious work which shapes how they define and interact with the world. When children use tools, they build on their life experiences and grow their knowledge base. Together, tools and nature have the ability to create a kind of community where every child is an active member in their own pursuit of knowledge.

Every morning at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the children and teachers come together and practice yoga with Yoga Pretzels cards before heading out on the daily hike/exploration. In this setting, yoga is used as a tool to calm the body and strengthen the mind. After ringing the yoga bell and practicing the Mountain pose the children are asked, “What does your mountain look like, can you describe it?” A girl in pink sparkly rain boots shoots her hand up in excitement, “I’m a sparkly, rainbow, glitter mountain.” Another boy tentatively raises his hand, “I’m a smooth mountain.” And after all the children have had a turn to share, it is time to head out on the hike – the students with a calm mind and their teacher with a backpack full of literal tools.


So what are the tools that the Directors of NINPA recommend? A take along tool that weighs almost nothing but can be utilized throughout the year are play cards. To create the following play cards simply print, cut, laminate, hole punch and connect to the outside of your backpack. Try using the perspective cards as a kind of game where children draw a card, one by one, and follow the written directive!  Do you have a child who loves carrying sticks or one that enjoys engineering? Try using the building cards as springboard for creating and building cooperatively with sticks. Need an ambulator to get you from one place to another? Use NINPA’s common plant identification cards or create a set related to your outdoor space for a take-along kind of scavenger hunt! Are you in a more urban setting? Try taking photos of the hardscape or various structures close-up. Then print these images off and use them as a tool to investigate a familiar space with an up-close view of the parts that create the whole!

Looking for a more hands-on kind of tool? Ever thought of making your own magnifier? These light weight and free magnifying lenses can be used in several different fashions. Try adding a drop of water to the “magnifying end” to create real magnification; or use an expo marker and draw a shape, letter, or number onto the “magnifying end.” These can be used again and again in any weather or season!


What about various tools that help children focus? Create your own “nature pointer” by painting one end of a long stick. Take this simple tool along on your excursions to assist you in pointing out natural wonders to students! A great way to look for colors is to collect and pre-punch old paint chips! Toss this light weight tool in your backpack and when spring or autumn rolls around, you’ll be ready to support looking for and matching colors.

Ever thought about carrying along multifunctional wooden peg dolls or story rocks? wooden peg dolls can be found on Amazon and can support storytelling and the creation of miniature worlds. You can also create your own story rocks/ wood cookies, by painting a picture or printing and modge podging a picture onto your desired surface.  Then place a handful of them into a bag and into your backpack! Try having everyone sit in a circle, taking turns pulling a rock out of the bag and using that picture to come up with a sentence or two to create a communal story!  

Whatever the tool, no matter the season, you’ll be ready to explore the great outdoors both in urban and rural settings! Good luck out there and may the power of tools inspire you!

About the Author

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