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

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.



amyA new national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found that the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high. The study, conducted by four associations serving early childhood professionals, identified more than 250 nature preschools and kindergartens across the country – a 66% increase over the previous year’s tally of 150. The programs serve approximately 10,000 children every year, and eight out of ten programs reported that they started a waiting list in the previous twelve months.

In the Chicago area, this national trend is even more pronounced. There are 16 dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens in the area, more than double in the last decade, according to data from the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association (NINPA). And that growth includes campuses at some of the most respected regional environmental education facilities, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“I’m excited to see the growth in our area,” said Megan Gessler, President of NINPA and Manager of Natural Beginnings Early Learning Program in Yorkville, Ill. “But that growth really represents a small part of our overall impact. Beyond dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens, many traditional schools and programs are borrowing from our practices and philosophies.”

The Natural Start Alliance, one of the groups that conducted the survey, defines nature preschools as schools that use nature as the organizing principle for their programs. Nature preschools require their teaching staff to have skills and experience in both early childhood education and environmental education. A significant portion of the school day in nature preschools is spent outside. Forest kindergartens are a type of nature preschool that takes place entirely outdoors, often allowing the children’s interests and curiosity to lead the day’s activities and inform the curriculum.

“The continued growth of these programs suggests that more parents are looking for forms of early childhood education in which nature facilitates children’s learning and development,” said Emilian Geczi, the Natural Start Alliance’s Director. “I think parents increasingly appreciate how the ever-changing environment and the many colors, textures, and sounds of nature foster discovery, collaboration, and the imagination.”

The survey found that, on average across all programs, students spent three-quarters of the school day outside. Almost half of the preschools and kindergartens offered full-day programs. The vast majority of programs reported using self-developed or emergent curricula, consistent with a general preference for child-directed and open-ended activities in many nature-based early childhood education settings.

The survey results also showed that some student populations, especially ethnic and racial minorities, were underrepresented in the nature-based programs. For example, only 3% of students in nature preschools and forest kindergartens were reported to be African American and 7% to be Hispanic. In comparison, the latest U.S. Census found that 15% of children under 5 were African American and 25% were Hispanic. The survey found similar underrepresentation of students with special needs and dual language learners.

“Clearly, the field needs to be much more intentional about planning, promoting, and running inclusive programs. The Natural Start Alliance is making this a major focus of its efforts,” said Geczi. The Natural Start Alliance organizes an annual national conference for nature-based early childhood educators and supports the work of the Council of Nature and Forest Preschools, a group focused on advancing the field. The theme of the 2017 Nature-Based Preschool Conference, held in Seattle, was equity and cultural responsiveness.

The other associations that participated in conducting the national survey were the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools, the Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association, and the Washington Area Nature Preschools Association.

“Children have an innate sense of curiosity and are drawn to the natural world,” Gessler said. “Fostering that curiosity prepares a child for lifelong learning and lays the foundation to face a constantly evolving world.”

“Just as important, allowing time and space for children to have meaningful interactions with nature helps them develop a respect and appreciation for the environment,” Gessler said.

The survey was sent in the summer of 2017 to 261 schools representing the combined membership lists of the four associations. The survey received a 47% response rate. Six surveys were undeliverable.

You can read the full survey results at

About the survey authors:

The Natural Start Alliance is a national coalition of educators, researchers, and parents who help young children connect with nature and care for the environment. Natural Start is a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Contact: Emilian Geczi, Natural Start Alliance Director,, 847-835-6834,

The Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools is a non-profit organization that provides services, support and inspiration to early childhood professionals to advance the field of nature-based early childhood education and encourage life-long appreciation for our natural world. Contact: Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director,

The Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association is a professional collaborative that promotes, supports and enhances nature-based early childhood education. Contact: Megan Gessler, Founder and President,,

The Washington Area Nature Preschools Association is a regional collaborative developed to support nature-based and outdoor early childhood education and teachers while working to meet the goals of connection, professional development, resource sharing, community participation, research, and improving preschool education. Contact: Kit Harrington, Founder and Director; Kendall Becherer, Co-Director,, 206-616-5261,


How to find the right nature-based preschool…

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 environmental education? What is their rate of turnover? Do they receive ongoing professional development in nature-based education?
  4. Look at teacher-student interactions.  Are they positive? Does the teacher seem to enjoy spending time with children in nature? Ask the teacher what they like about working there. What is the teacher-student ratio? How do they handle social-emotional challenges?
  5. What does the daily schedule look like? Does it include time for free play in nature? Are there safety policies for nature play? Are there opportunities for students to engage in play that increases their confidence and skill in risk assessment?
  6. Can you picture your child thriving here? Will this school engage your child’s interests?  Will your child’s learning style be suited well at this program? Will their needs be met? Will they feel included and represented? Do the students appear happy and engaged?  Are they interacting positively? Is everyone doing the same activity at the same time or are activities open-ended with the ability for the child to flow from one activity to another? How are individual interests accommodated?
  7. If there is an indoor classroom, what is on the walls of the classroom?  Is it eye level for a child? Does it reflect student artwork? Does it reflect an emergent student interest? Are natural materials prevalent in the classroom? Plants or animals? Does the classroom reflect the local environment? Is it inclusive of the community? Does it feel warm and inviting?
  8. Is there an outdoor classroom or other spaces for children to engage in and with nature? Are those spaces given the same amount of consideration? Do the children spend equal or more time in nature as they do inside the classroom? Are there natural materials that the children can move and manipulate? Are the children allowed to touch and interact with their environment?
  9. Does the school impliment sustainability practices?
  10. How does the program share information with families regaring nature-based learning? How will the families be involved in that learning?

Check here for a map of nature-based preschools in your area.

About the Author: Megan Gessler is the Early Childhood Program Coordinator at The Morton Arboretum and the Founder of NINPA.