Once a month each three-year-old and four-year-old class at the Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool (AUCP) spends the morning on a fieldtrip at a local natural area. The lead nature teacher arrives and spreads out a large tarp and a few sleeping bags as a place for their morning meeting. On this occasion the ground is cold and wet with melted snow. The classroom teacher and assistant and the school director are there. Parents arrive to stay and co-op (assist the teachers) or to drop off their children. Everyone is wearing insulated boots, warm pants, jackets, hats and mittens and the children have brought snacks in their backpacks. The nearby heated nature center with bathrooms opens in an hour.
The lead teacher begins by passing around photos from this class’ last visit, a month ago when the weather was warmer and the children waded in edge of the creek. The group talks briefly about their previous experience, looks at the temperature (32*F) and settles in to hear a book. After the story is over the children choose a direction and walk off in small groups attended by adults in a 2 children to 1 adult ration. I followed an adult with a pair of children who wanted to walk on the paved trail downstream to the location where they had waded the last time they were here. Along the way they read the text from a children’s book, Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner. The text is on posters, illustrated by children from the local elementary school, and displayed on signs along the trail.
The children walk carefully on the frost-slippery trail, find sticks and poke at remnants of ice but can’t dislodge it. When they reach their destination, they find it hard to throw stones with mittens on. Only a few stones make it into the water, rippling the surface. All along the trail the adult and children talk about what they see and hear—the story, ice, trees, the water moving over stones and a few bird calls. The children begin walking back and meet another small group of children with an adult at a place where the creek goes under the trail. Larger chunks of ice lie broken up on the trail here and the children work hard to dislodge them, carry them to the edge of the trail and throw them into the flowing creek. I hold my breath, thinking that the effort of heaving a large chunk of ice will carry a child over the edge too. The adults stand close by but not close enough to catch the child, and they don’t give any warnings. Splash, the ice is in the water, floating away, and the child is not. The drop is less than a foot, the water is less than a foot deep, the child has a backpack full of dry clothes and the heated nature center is a short walk up the trail. If the child did fall in, there are enough adults that the others could continue their exploration while the wet one got quickly changed. Getting wet on a cold day is not part of the plan but there is a plan in place in case it happens.
Back at the tarp, children who are hungry have broken open their snack bags and the adults are serving warm cider. After refueling, there are rock piles to clamber over, bathroom breaks to take and other paths to take. You can read more about this program, and the resources they link to about “forest kindergartens” and nature play for children.
The director describes how the school was so inspired and transformed by what they learned from the documentary, “School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten” that they implemented what they call “Timber Tuesdays” for a few classes. Their 3-year-olds, and two mixed-aged classes of 3, 4 and 5s, rotate each week and spend their class day outside. Instead of dropping the children off at school, the parents drop off at a local nature center and they spend their 3-hour day outside regardless of the rain, cold, snow etc. They are hoping to expand their program next year!