First in a series of posts this year (2014-2015), highlighting Jewish early childhood centers that are creating outdoor learning environments and developing a nature-based curriculum.
A special part of my role here at The Jewish Education Project is to visit Jewish early childhood centers and see their nature-inspired spaces. I bear witness to the spread of this wonderful innovation from school to school in our geographic area and in early childhood in general. While visiting these spaces – taking pictures and listening – I get to meet the educators, staff and parents who play an important role shaping the look, design and use of their unique space. I get to see their successes and hear about their challenges. I help tell their stories. I learn from them and with them. And I network educators together, to be in conversation and to learn from each other. It’s a wonderful part of my work. My gosh, who could complain about spending a morning under a tree or standing on a mini-bridge taking in the fresh air. Sometimes I become a kid all over again and drink up every last minute!
This year, with an incredible number of new schools adopting this innovation (in part due to the networking, the blogging, and the incredible site visits these past few years) I have many more sites to visit. Yeah!
Shelter Rock Jewish Center (SRJC) is another synagogue blessed by being situated on a large piece of property with tall trees and beautiful bushes.
In fact, there are so many trees on the property that sometimes the facilities manager, Andy, actually needs to cut them down. The day I visited Silvia Kogan, director of the preschool, was one of these days! I pull up to the front of the synagogue and see this massive tree cut into pieces sitting on the lawn and two men looking over the grand pile. Andy must have thought I was nuts when I pulled up and started asking a zillion questions about the stumps and large logs. Finally after explaining myself and sharing with him how valuable these are for crafting more natural environments for children’s play and learning, he got it. And sometimes its just a matter of making the right connections with the right people in your institution to have something like a tremendous tree provide tremendous value for the school. Here’s a picture of the beautiful tree all cut up….
Unfortunately this tree was destined for another location but Andy is fully on board with making sure the next tree (and even a few stray limbs) will end up being property of the preschool.
While visiting with Silvia she showed me the gardens that were built between the school and the playground. They are the perfect width and length to support the involvement of the children. They are narrow enough for children to reach in from both sides and get to the center and long enough to have an entire class line up along the edges and be actively engaged.
This time of year the gardens were overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, and more. In fact Silvia took advantage of our time in the garden to pick a few goodies to share with one of her teachers. She said to me, “wait until you see this particular teacher’s face light up when I bring these in”. And truth be told I was not disappointed. I think it’s these little connections between a director and his/her staff that begins the process of adopting a strong garden curriculum. For SRJC it’s really just the beginning. They’re figuring out how much time the children will spend in the garden, what they will do, and how to use the produce to fully engage the children in the whole process of growing and eating – which by the way supports a healthy-eating curriculum. But they are definitely on their way.
Here’s a picture of the goodies Silvia picked and shared…
THE COMPOST BIN AND WATER BARREL
In addition to the gardens I was thrilled to see a compost bin AND a water barrel. These are two great additions to any outdoor space. If done well they can be incorporated into the daily activities of the children and serve as a catalyst for conversations about stewardship, healthy soil, and decomposition – just to name a few. But if left idol they can quickly become relics from someone else’s good idea long ago. In this case the compost bin was quickly becoming the later. The contents were hard and crumbly and it wasn’t being used.
But it wasn’t from laziness. It was more about fears and some misinformation. Luckily, being somewhat of a compost fanatic myself, I reassured Silvia that animals won’t be attracted to the bin if she and her staff stick to fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, paper products, leaves, and flowers as the staple ingredients. Although it may sound easy, and I think it really is, it does take an important intentionality and some training to support staff and get the kids involved. But once they are, the garden and the children will benefit greatly. It will be fun to watch this take place at SRJC this year.
A few more pictures from the Garden