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Bringing nature into children’s lives

By Staff | Apr 19, 2008

Jane Shuttleworth, executive director of the Friends of Lakeside Lab, conducts a workshop, “Birds Every Child Should Know,” during Friday’s “Outdoors: Let’s Explore” conference held at Lakeside Lab and the Pearson Lakes Art Center in the Iowa Great Lakes. Photo by Greg Drees

OKOBOJI — They came with inquisitive minds, and left with the satisfaction that what they learned about nature could enrich the lives of children under their tutorship.

Early childhood educators from northwest Iowa and Minnesota convened on Friday in the Iowa Great Lakes at the Pearson Lakes Art Center and Iowa Lakeside Laboratory for the first annual “Outdoors: Let’s Explore” symposium teaching environmental education. A year in the making, the workshop was assembled by Nature Connections, a consortium of teachers, nature enthusiasts and early childhood leaders.

Jane Shuttleworth, executive director of the Friends of Lakeside Lab and a charter member of Nature Connections, helped organize the event. “The Iowa Great Lakes is an ideal location to open up the natural world to educators with our diversity of habitats and opportunities,” Shuttleworth said. Shuttleworth and Peter Van der Linden, executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and Regents Resource Center, were honored at the outset of the conference for their leadership in environmental education.

Early childhood teachers, naturalists and community partners — mostly from O’Brien, Osceola, Clay, Buena Vista and Dickinson counties — began the day listening to a keynote address from Sheila Williams Ridge and Sarah Sivright, directors of the Dodge Nature Preschool near St. Paul, Minn., nationally renowned for specializing in environmental education in early childhood development. Titled “Out the door: Helping teachers and children discover the joy of outdoor play,” the presentation focused on the successes of Dodge Nature Preschool.

Founded in 2000, the preschool is designed to connect children to the outdoors, and specifically to the wetlands, prairies and woodlands of the 110-acre Dodge Nature Center. Up to one-half of a typical preschool class, for 3-to 5-year-olds, is spent outdoors year-round. Curriculum is organized around nature and environmental education.

Workshops that followed — taught by experienced educators in early childhood and environmental education from the University of Iowa and naturalists from county conservation boards — included balancing safety and risk in outdoor play, how to bring nature inside, catching teachable moments outdoors and poetry and movement in the great outdoors.

Jeanine Hough, with Upper Des Moines Opportunity Childcare Resource & Referral, is part of the connections committee that has been working to bring nature into early childhood classrooms and activities. “This is so exciting to bring these educators and community partners together to brainstorm and learn how to bring nature into our children’s lives,” Hough said.

Connie Siebenbruner, Head Start director for Upper Des Moines, is one of 20 individuals representing different entities of early childhood development who have been working together since last summer to put on the conference. “We have realized weakness in terms of nature science in all of our classrooms,” Siebenbruner said. “We started partnering with Lakeside Lab and naturalists about early childhood and the natural world together. Our goal is for our teachers to take this kind of science back to their classrooms and duplicate it in their nature setting.”

The web of teachers, learners and agencies involved in the conference for early childhood educators and providers reached a consensus of mission, to meet children’s developmental needs while introducing them to a life-long, meaningful relationship with nature.

The Nature Connectors consortium said the conference will become an annual event.