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Learning nature’s lessonsOut & About preschoolers spend time exploring the outdoors

Linda Rose looks back at her childhood spent splashing in creeks and exploring woods and realizes all the things she learned during those years.

Today, she provides similar experiences for young children enrolled in Seneca County Park District’s Out & About Preschool.

And now, 13 years after founding the nature-based preschool, she’s teaching other teachers the importance of kids spending time outdoors.

That knowledge was recognized earlier this year when Rose was presented the Conservation Educator of the Year Award for 2019 by the League of Ohio Sportsmen.

She and husband, Mike, traveled to Columbus where she received her award during a banquet.

“It was a surprise,” she said. “It was a very nice banquet.”

Out & About Preschool opened its doors in fall 2007 with seven kids in a morning session.

It’s been the synthesis of her background, interests, experience and education as a registered nurse, early childhood educator and natural resources professional.

“We strive to get kids in the outdoors, and learning about the outdoors,” she said.

In the early 2000s, Rose said she had heard about nature-based preschools, but there were very few in the United States at that time.

“I went to a conference over by Cleveland,” she said. “The author of ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ Richard Louv, was speaking.”

Rose previously had read, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” (richardlouv.com/books/last-child).

She went home from the conference with an idea and talked to her husband, Mike, about it.

“Follow your dreams,” he said. “Go for it.”

So in 2005, Rose set out to first convince the Seneca County Park District board that starting a nature-based preschool was a good idea, and then to work out the details of licensing, occupancy permits and gathering supplies to make the nature center at Garlo Heritage Nature Preserve into a classroom.

“It was a struggle,” she said. “But I’m glad it worked out. It’s me.

“Kids today are so indoor focused, technology focused,” she said. “If I can get kids outside, I’m happy and I think they’re happy.

“Kids that get daily doses of outdoors eat better, sleep better,” she said. “Physically and mentally they’re better.”

Rose said research in the last few years has shown children in nature-based preschools score equally as high or higher in math, social studies, language and other education areas.

“These kids are scoring equally as high if not higher in many areas,” she said.

In addition to her preschool duties, Rose teaches programs for all ages as the park district’s head naturalist. She puts together a monthly list of program for all ages as lead naturalist for the park district.

She said getting outside isn’t just good for kids, it’s important for adults as well.

“So many adults don’t understand what an important part getting outdoors can play in reducing stress,” she said.

She said there are many health benefits of sunshine, fresh air and walking.

“Hearing a bird sing can totally change a mindset,” she said. “Seeing an eagle in a tree can be the best thing all day.

“It’s physical, but also a chance for emotional and spiritual growth if you take the time to look and see what else is out there,” she said. “For me, no day is complete without outdoor time.”

Along with preschool and public nature programs, Rose offers an increasing number of school programs and field trips. She works with many local schools to provide educational programs involving science, math, literacy, arts and nature.

Educational speaker

Increasingly during the last 10 years, she also has been asked to share her experiences and knowledge with other teachers and outdoors professionals.

She said her first workshop was in Columbus at the annual conference of the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children.

“If you presented a workshop you got to go to the conference for free,” she said. “I decided I could talk for an hour and a half.”

She talked about infants and nature.

“We never expected 225 people to show up in that room,” she said.

The speaking experience showed her there was interest in the topic of nature and children.

“It has grown since then,” she said.

In addition to several more talks at OAEYC conferences, Rose has spoken at the Environmental Education Council of Ohio annual conference, at Bowling Green State University’s early childhood conference, Ohio Parks and Recreation Association conference and at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.

Rose said she submitted a proposal to speak at this year’s Natural Start Alliance conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education to take place in Cincinnati. The proposal is titled “Not All Classrooms Have Four Walls — Using Phenology in These Non-Traditional Classrooms.” She said she would talk about using outdoor spaces such as creeks, forests, gardens, fields and trails as learning environments and how weather and climate can change the timing of seasonal events such as the return of vultures, first crocus to bloom, salamander migration and similar seasonal events.

An article about Out & About Preschool written by Rose was featured in the summer 2019 edition of the OPRA Connection, a trade publication for park and recreation professionals.

In that article, Rose wrote: “Their playground is 302 acres of grasslands, woods, wetlands, ponds and trails. Children learn by doing, and play is their work. Specific areas are explored and named by the children. Such areas are the dinosaur bones (an old cattle boneyard), the deer bedroom (where the deer bed down), the waterfalls (with stepping stones to cross), mud mountain (sometimes known as dry mountain), mud kitchen (where snow soup, leaf salad and mud pancakes are served), tunneville (where culverts of all sizes create hiding places) and the list goes on.”

Trees, mud and dead deer

During class on a day in late February, Rose gathered up her supplies and the children watched her tap a maple tree to collect sap.

“When we get enough, we boil it down and make pancakes from scratch,” she said. “We cook them, probably over the open fire, and we use our syrup and talk about where food comes from. Those kinds of things.”

Lessons change by season because Rose said Mother Nature always has something new to teach.

Earlier in February, she said the kids found some totally decomposed deer and raccoon carcasses, and unknown large rodent.

“We watch the eagles. We count the geese. We talk about seasonal changes,” she said.

“In fall, we always try to get two or three monarch caterpillars and watch them complete metamorphosis,” she said. “And there’s the changing of the leaves. These kids can tell you maples. They can tell you oaks. They can tell you the layers of the tree bark.”

Last fall, she said the preschool undertook the Apple Project.

The children picked apples off of a tree themselves.

“We used an old-fashioned peeler,” she said. “And then we cooked the apples over a fire in a dutch oven.”

They made applesauce, and then ate it for a snack.

“We make applesauce every year,” she said.

But this year, the kids were interested in apples so the staff has made it an ongoing project.

They made apple fritters, pressed apple cider, dehydrated apples and centered lessons on other apple items.

“Each month since then we’ve continued to do an apple project,” she said.

And each child has a project book where they record their experiences through drawings. And a few photos are added for each project.

The project topic changes every year, she said.

In between, there are lots of outdoor activities in all weather, depending on the season.

“We try to hike every day, and some days hikes are longer than others,” she said. “There’s no bad weather. Just bad clothes.”

If it’s raining, a hike might be a little shorter, but getting outside in the snow and mud is routine.

A few years ago, Rose said the class ran across a dead deer not from the nature center.

“That was a great opportunity to talk about safety in crossing the road,” she said. “It wasn’t my decision to check it every day, but we did.”

So she set up a trail camera so the kids could see the decomposition process.

“We saw a coyote and a turkey vulture on the carcass,” she said. “We talked about predator/prey relationships and decomposition.

“Some were surprising,” she said. “One day a frog was sitting on top of it. Another day there was downy woodpecker inside. And kids think maggots are awesome.”

She uses scientific terms such as “predator,” “prey” and “decomposition” so kids become familiar with them.

In spring, she said they listen to spring sounds and then go out to find the animals making those sounds such as birds and frogs. They search for salamanders, and watch tiny buds on trees grow as spring moves toward summer.

Indoor play and learning

As the children arrived back inside after a foray to play on Mud Mountain and to learn about tapping a tree to collect sap, they know the daily routine of shedding hats, gloves and warm winter coats and hanging them up to dry.

“Mud,” she said. “That’s one word that’s always in our vocabulary all three seasons.”

On their daily excursions, Rose said children ages 3-5 have endless questions.

Instead of answering they’re questions, she said she usually shows them where to find the answers themselves by showing them how to find information in books, or she’ll ask them questions in return until they comprehend a new concept.

Kids learn phenology, which is studying the changing environment as the seasons change.

“They do a lot of journaling,” she said. “At their level, of course.”

Other indoor time is spent building with blocks, feeding a collection of classroom animals, playing with animal puppets, and making things out of sticks, pine cones, acorns, rocks, paper, paint and glue.

There’s a shelf full of books and math-related activities.

They sit on log benches and tree stumps, or just on the floor.

Rose introduces intergenerational learning into the classroom by partnering with Autumnwood Care Center. Residents visit the preschool when the weather cooperates to do crafts and interact with the children. The kids also take part in yoga classes with Jamie Costein once a month.

In the past, the preschool has partnered with Seneca County Master Gardeners on a gardening project.

Preschool growth

Soon after the preschool opened, Rose said a waiting list started for form because classes were full. She even had children signing up their children before they were born.

“We’ve grown here in that we have kids that have come from 21 towns and nine school districts, and we added an afternoon class in 2017 because of demand,” she said.

Today, she and her assistants teach 16 children in the morning class Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 10 in the afternoon, Monday and Wednesday.

“Even though we’re license for 24 (per class) we don’t want to do 24 because we don’t feel we can give the kids the quality of experiences we want to give,” she said.

And keeping track of that many children can be daunting, she said.

“Especially when our playground is 302 acres,” she said “We explore about every acre there is to explore.”

Through the years, Rose said she’s learned many things about kids.

And one of her goals is to let kids be kids.

“We just want them to be kids like their great-great-grandparents were,” she said. “Children have not changed for centuries. Childhood has.

“Children still want to run, roll down hills, play and use sticks,” she said. “Kids don’t roll down hills like they used to. They don’t play with sticks.”

One of her goals is to teach children to appreciate nature and the outdoors.

“They learn conservation, appreciation and education,” she said. “Hopefully, when they’re grown they will retain those values.

“But we want them to have fun at the same time,” she said. “Our bodies weren’t meant to sit as much as we sit. Our bodies were meant to move. Kids need to make noise and to move and, unfortunately, so much of that has been taken away from them.”

Rose said she hopes her early childhood lessons stay with them into adulthood.

“I really think if kids are brought up learning to appreciate nature and what it has, then they’re going to, when they get older, give that to their children and their grandchildren, hopefully,” she said.

And some might follow in her footsteps.

“It’s what I do,” she said. “The outdoors comes naturally to me.

“I grew up next to a creek, and basically the neighbors’ kids and I lived in that creek,” she said. “We would spend our days fishing, stomping the mud, catching crayfish and snakes – and just talking.

“We’d follow the creek back to the woods and take a break back there exploring until our parents got home,” she said. “We didn’t come home until dark.

“At night, we slept in the back yard under the stars,” she said.

“It was just one of those things kids did back then,” she said. “We didn’t stay inside because it was too hot outside. If it was hot, you splashed in the creek.”

So she’s shared those experiences with her kids and her grandkids.

Now she shares it with a generation of preschoolers.

Anyone who wants to learn more about nature can pick up a program listing at the park office, 3362 S. TR 151, or call the office at (419) 447-8091. They can check the weekly outdoor page in the Advertiser-Tribune each Saturday, check the website at www.senecacountyparks.com, or email Rose directly at lrose@senecacountyparks.com.

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