Second 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.
Nancy Isaacs says she does what comes naturally when it comes to incorporating nature into her school any way that she possibly can. Nancy was raised with nature all around her on the north shore of Long Island in Glen Cove and remembers a seamless blending between her back yard and the local nature preserve. “There were no fences and you could just go and go until you were called back by your parents.”
The Jewish Community Center of Harrison (JCCH) Preschool is blessed to have a similar looking environment in which huge trees, deciduous woods, stone walls, and even a boggy marsh are an everyday sight for the families and congregants in this beautiful Westchester town. In THIS space you might take it all for granted because it’s all around you, but Nancy does everything she can to promote a high level of exploration in her school by all the children in the 2s, 3s, and 4s classrooms.
Nature at the JCCH. Although I could have visited with Nancy Isaacs for hours I had another school to visit on this rainy day trip so here are just some of the ways Nancy has developed her lens on nature at the JCCH:
- Outdoor gardening occurs during all but the frost months of winter. The rest of the time Nancy lines up 9 huge terra cotta planters out by the fence along the main walkway to the building. It’s a beautiful space with grass, nearby woods and a few tree stumps. On this particular day the stumps look like lonely soldiers standing lookout for the children but I can only imagine what this yard looks like with the planters all lined up with vegetables like cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, string beans, basil, snow peas, and more. Nancy says the planters enable her to create an organic chemical-free planting system for the kids that won’t be affected by any occasional spraying that may take place by the groundskeepers. Her long term goal would be to own a more permanent piece of the property to do the gardening.
- Exploring the property at the JCCH is a regular occurrence. Not to be taken lightly, the teachers take the children on long walks along a wooded path as well as down by a boggy area that is closer to the front of the building. Nancy easily, and joyfully, describes the sounds you can hear the frogs make in the spring and the mallard duck couple that has visiting the school every year for as long as she can remember. Evidence of these walks can be seen on the school walls. The picture below is an example of the children pointing out and photographing different things they see on these long walks.
- Gardening indoors. JCCH is mastering the indoor gardening thing and regularly plants winter crops indoors with the children. Potatoes grew very successfully in a terrarium and they are testing out what it might look like to have plants grow from inside a pumpkin. This level of experimentation is evident throughout each classroom. This year Nancy is going to try her hand at a gardening idea she picked up at the last In-site-ful Journey visit to the Chai Center Preschool. There she learned you can take small or large bags of top soil and use those to plant rows of vegetables right on the ground or on a table. Here’s a picture I found off the internet of this type of gardening.
Cooking is a big hit with the children. On this day I was lucky to visit a classroom that had just finished making mashed potatoes from potatoes grown in the garden and the room smelled delicious. See the bowl and utensils still on the counter in the photo below.
- Honoring the children’s questions about nature. Whether it’s taking a closer look at the nubby bumps on the outside of gourds and pumpkins with magnifiers or hanging pine branches on a fishing line to see if it will “eventually dry out”, this school honors the inquisitiveness of the children by supporting experimentation and drawing hypothesizes.
- The Jewish connection. The children are also making the connection between food and Jewish values and mitzvoth (commandments). With a new rabbi in place this year, Rabbi Eytan Hammerman, the children eagerly bring him a basket of food they harvested from the planters as symbols of welcoming and honoring.
How they got here. Nancy believes in letting the children guide the learning but she also routinely supports her staff’s awareness of nature and the connection between nature and its positive effect on children’s developmental growth. This way what comes naturally to the children will be routinely nurtured by her staff. And it is. Nancy uses staff time to talk about the seasons, the plantings, and share articles about children and nature. She also shares her knowledge with parents through the school newsletter.
Areas to grow. Every school, no matter how advanced they are adopting a nature-based curriculum, can always identify a few places where things can improve. Here at the JCCH I know Nancy would like to get the parents more involved and invested in this part of the program. To help do this she and her staff are participating in a new Family Engagement Network offered through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism which will help the JCCH create a congregational vision for family engagement as well as develop leadership and volunteer opportunities all year long. She’d also like to see her summer gardening planters find a more permanent home on the property. I think for a school that goes outdoors all year long, this will only support the children’s questions about what happens to all those wonderful veggies during their dormant stages.
My trip to Westchester on this rainy day was great. I even walked away with a special gift from Nancy, a seedling – one of MANY that grows from a potted plant that produces its seeds on the tips of each leaf. Nancy doesn’t know what the name of this plant is, but I guarantee if you go and visit her lovely school you’ll walk away with one for school or your own home!
Click here to read Nancy’s upcoming article which will appear in the Synagogue’s December bulletin.