Hitchcock Center’s Small Wonders: Using Science and Nature to Grow Young Minds project engaged over 200 early childhood educators during the 2018-19 school year, to increase the integration of science and nature into early childhood programs and schools throughout the Pioneer Valley.
Nature-based learning is rooted in imagination and experience, yet is also rich in science content and social and emotional learning. It is highly effective in promoting early STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) where learning experiences occurs in the context of nature. This programming means that curricula is driven by nature, is rich in science content, integrates nature into the indoor spaces, and naturalized outdoor and play areas are prioritized over highly structured play environments. It is rooted in the best practices of environmental and STEAM education and values stewardship of the natural world and enables educators to model for children appropriate ways to interact with the natural world—for example, the importance of wetting your hands before picking up a frog.
Funded by the Francis R. Dewing Foundation, the Small Wonders project helped break down barriers to adopting science and nature-based learning through a series of training, mentoring, support services and an online classroom and resource sharing. The ultimate goal was to support educators in learning how to increase the amount of nature-based education in their programs.
Project highlights included:
Workshop Series: A total of 30 early childhood educators participated in the Small Wonders four-part workshop series that included:
Lecture Series: A total of 157 parents, educators and professionals attended the 2-part lecture series by Angela Hanscomb, pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot. Angela made the case for getting children outside. Lightly structured physical challenges for children, she argues, are ways to help develop a child’s limbic system – their sense of balance and body position in relation to their world. She is also a children’s occupational therapist and founder of the Timbernook program for children. The public lectures drew over 100 attendees.
Mentoring Support: A total of 7 early childhood educators received more in-depth follow-up and mentoring support at their individual sites, with the goal of increasing the amount of time their children spend outdoors.
In Bloom Regional Conference: A total of 102 early childhood educators participated in the In Bloom Conference of Western Massachusetts on June 8, 2019. This conference was held at the center in partnership with Antioch College and brought together a diverse array of early childhood professionals, higher education faculty, environmental educators, mindfulness practitioners and naturalists.
Resources: Program resources included the new Google online classroom for teachers; newly developed Take it Outside activities for parents and caregivers; In Bloom Conference fee waivers; free one-year membership to the Hitchcock Center; and much more.
High-quality nature-based early childhood education doesn’t happen overnight. It requires new ways of teaching and thinking under the guidance of skilled environmental educators and mentors. The Hitchcock Center, an environmental education leader with over 57 years experience, is uniquely positioned to advance nature-based education for young children in Western Massachusetts.
The Center was one of the first to implement a nature-based parent and child preschool program in the 1980s. This program has received many regional awards for excellence and continues today as one of the premier early childhood programs in the Pioneer Valley. As nature-based education is being recognized more and more as highly beneficial to a child’s social, emotional and intellectual development, the Hitchcock Center is increasingly being called upon to consult, advise and train other early childhood educators and providers.
Highlighted experiences gained from this project include