“Look over there Ryan, those are swans,” 3-year-old Charlie Distin shouted as he pointed toward two swans that were fishing in Turtle Pond. “Those are mommy and daddy swans.”
At Felix Neck’s new Fern and Feather Preschool, the sense of wonder experienced as a young child is a mechanism for immersive learning and hands-on education.
Instead of taking nature and biology class in a conventional preschool setting, kids at Fern and Feather head out into the great outdoors and experience nature firsthand. Instead of doing addition and subtraction in a math classroom, the kids go out and count the number of tadpoles they find in the pond. According to Felix Neck director Suzan Bellincampi, these methods of experiential learning are fun and effective for young children, and allow them to better understand their place in the natural world.
For this portion of the program, kids are learning about maps and beginning to navigate the almost 200 acres of outdoor classroom they have at their disposal.
Down the Shad Trail along the shoreline at Major’s Cove, kids dug for buried treasure after following a treasure map to a large “X” marked with sticks. “Kids are learning about the land really personally,” preschool director Ryan Ofsthun said. “They can already guide us to different landmarks throughout the sanctuary.” That day, Ofsthun said the kids blazed the trail down to the beach and uncovered a watermelon buried in the sand — the kids’ version of buried treasure.
“We noticed that kids were beginning to draw maps of the trails in the sand below our feet, and figured we would encourage that kind of learning,” Ofsthun said. Preschool teachers showed the kids a map of the sanctuary and encouraged them to choose different areas to explore. “Their map literacy is incredible. The kids already have their favorite spots to hang out. They really want to get to know the land,” Ofsthun said.
Every element of the preschool curriculum, according to Ofsthun, is inspired and led by the students. “It’s called an emerging curriculum. It’s all built off what the kids are interested in,” Ofsthun said. Because the kids choose what they learn about, Ofsthun said there is no problem engaging them and having them actively participate. “It’s so fun and effortless for these kids, they just love being outdoors and learning about this incredible natural resource we have access to,” Ofsthun said.
Felix Neck education coordinator Josey Kirkland walked along the trail and commented on 3-year-old Logan Boytek’s impressive walking stick he found lying in some brush. “That’s a good walking stick, it’s bigger than you are,” Kirkland laughed. Kirkland said a 10-minute walk down the trail often takes 45 minutes, as kids stop to check out the natural wonders they pass by.
Not only do kids learn about and engage with nature, but they get to run and tumble and play in ways that exercise all the essential human faculties. “By the end of the day, everyone is exhausted. But that’s a good thing,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland said she has some friends with children who are enrolled in the preschool, and they tell her their kids look forward to school every week. “They say their kids don’t even like weekends anymore because they don’t get to go to school,” Kirkland said. “That’s pretty special.”
After picking up a spider from the ground, 4-year-old Layla Carlos showed off her specimen to the rest of the class. “Look, it’s a daddy long legs,” Layla said excitedly. “Be careful with our spider friend, maybe put him in the grass somewhere,” Kirkland told Layla.
Kirkland said some kids came to preschool afraid of bugs, but their perception changed quickly when they learned more about them. “Once kids understand that this is a living creature that is a major part of our ecosystem, their view of bugs and other animals changes pretty dramatically,” Kirkland said. She explained that this knowledge of nature promotes environmental stewardship and personal responsibility later on in life.
She said lots of conventional classrooms have pets, but the Fern and Feather Preschool’s pets are crawling among leaf litter and swimming in the ponds and marshes of Felix Neck.
Every week, Kirkland said Ofsthun writes a wrap-up that gets sent to parents describing what the kids have been working on, and what they will focus on in upcoming segments. “It’s very cool for parents to be aware of what goes on in the outdoor classroom, because then they can encourage that type of education at home also,” Kirkland said.
Bellincampi said one motto of the Fern and Feather preschool is, “there’s no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” She said Felix Neck plans to continue the preschool throughout the winter, and if the weather looks too nasty, they may wait it out or stay inside. “If it snows, we take the kids tracking, if it rains, we jump in mud puddles. We really try to get outside as much as we can,” Bellincampi said, “although safety is always our number one priority.”
For adults, Kirkland said the natural world falls quickly into the technical and scientific, but for children, nature is the ultimate playground-classroom combination.
So far, there are 19 kids in the program. Currently, Bellincampi said there are very few spaces available for this year, and there is a waitlist for next year’s preschool.
“For kids, nature is so much more than just a setting. Every day’s an adventure with new things to learn,” she said.
If you are looking to enroll your child in the Fern and Feather Preschool, call 508-627-4850, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.