The Forest Preschool classroom changes every day. Some of the changes are visible overnight, like when the pine trees release pollen that suddenly leaves a fine yellow dust on everything below, or when the puddle in our path that was dry yesterday is full today. A late snow in April can bury the fresh green of spring grass, and snowsuits put away for the season must be pulled out one last time.
Other changes, though equally dramatic, happen in slow motion – like the transformation of the meadow through the seasons. Four to five foot green and then goldenrod yellow tunnels snake through the meadow in the fall, flatten under winter snow into comparably expansive views that slowly disappear again in the spring as broken brown stalks are buried in the explosion of new green only a month later. The grass seed heads in June look like mini firework displays.Our perspectives change with the view: as the meadow closes in around us again, we take our eyes off the hills and the clouds and birds and notice the developing leaves and flowers right beside us and we discover the numerous insects that live there.
The forest classroom in the spring is no less dynamic. Sunlight and ephemeral flowers both fade as the green canopy closes in over our heads, providing welcome shade as the spring days grow warmer. Fiddleheads emerge from their papery nests in May and soar up over children's heads by June. Trips to the “beaver” pond reveal plump, overwintered tadpoles – first seen under the ice in the fall – now growing legs. The river rises and retreats after each rain and the cobbled beach disappears and reappears with it.
These ongoing surprises and transformations in our environment are what make FPS unique. All the ingredients for a rich, challenging and nurturing learning environment are imbedded in our “classroom” – in the beautiful fields and woods of the North Branch Nature Center. Opportunities for spontaneous, trial and error experimentation abound; the details and complexities of nature feed the innate curiosity of the children and provide daily opportunities to explore and make connections.If “every child contains the basis for their own learning” (Christakis, xix), then the child’s environment essentially becomes the curriculum. Here, in this environment, we find the space for exploring cause and effect, for challenging our bodies, for asking big questions and deducing answers, for imagining and creating, for sharing and connecting. Relationships are formed and love grows – for each other and for the animals and plants around us.
“Learning and love are mutually reinforcing concepts in the mind of a growing child,” says early childhood educator Erika Christakis.
A boy pauses in his play, gazes up at the forest around him and asks, “Do we help the trees when we play?”
Yes! Yes, we do.
Cristakis, Erika. The Importance of Being Little, New York, New York: Viking, 2016.