Ann Ward, lead teacher in the Mighty Oaks kindergarten, presents a storytime in her outdoor classroom during warmer days back in the fall..jpg

Ann Ward, lead teacher in the Mighty Oaks kindergarten, presents a storytime in her outdoor classroom during warmer days back in the fall. 

By Mike Weilbacher

When you drive down Hagy’s Mill Road in front of the Schuylkill Center, you’ll pass a bright lime-green sign shouting, “Thank you, Teachers!” It’s one very small way we’re telling our frontline staff how much we appreciate their service during this unrelenting pandemic.

For eight years now, our Center has been the home of Nature Preschool, the state’s first nature-based preschool where some 90 students ages 3-5 come for preschool and kindergarten classes. Our students learn everything a preschooler and kindergarten kid learns, but outdoors, immersed in nature, on our trails and in our forests, fields, and ponds. They catch tadpoles, climb rocks, make pesto from invasive weeds, plant seeds and trees, and so much more. And the curriculum is an emergent one, allowing the students to set the direction of their learning.

It’s a very special program with a very talented teaching staff.

But this year, the extraordinarily flexible teachers have kicked it up a notch, as nature and the outdoors have become our secret weapons in keeping our children safe from COVID-19. While our school has classrooms where-- in simpler years-- classes used to start and finish, our staff and students have shifted the paradigm this year, meeting outdoors in the morning and staying outdoors all day, our facilities team carving out outdoor classrooms and covered spaces where the classes go to avoid inclement weather.

And until Old Man Winter-- remember him?-- returned in recent weeks, the school has been all outdoors all the time. The last couple of weeks, with low temperatures and surprising amounts of snow and ice, the groups have been forced to retreat indoors, the Center again rearranging the building’s interior spaces to accommodate our most precious cargo.

Still, what kid doesn’t love a good snowstorm? So while we did have a few snow days, the kids were chomping at the bit to get back to school and get outside, so they could follow fox tracks, play with icicles, and simply sled (what kids supposed to do in snow!).

One teacher, Katie, who teaches our Sassafras class (our classes all have tree names) notes that, “Our kids aren’t usually cold because we are rarely idle. We take a lot of hikes and we do a lot of running around.” The Mighty Oaks-- that’s the kindergarten class-- created their own shelter,  kids dragging small saplings and grasses to create a cozy little spot into which they could crawl. These same kids also sipped hot tea around a fire ring in which they collected the firewood to fuel their warmth.

Knox Rodriguez, a student in the Mighty Oaks classroom, has embraced this “new normal” with aplomb. His parents, Kelly and Emilio, knowing that virtual learning was not a good fit for their son, make the almost one-hour drive from South Philly to Roxborough because “it's totally worth it. Knox is a kid that likes to be outside and the Schuylkill Center is such a beautiful setting for him to play and learn.” They could have found something closer to home but specifically chose our program because it was child-responsive and fully outdoors.

When Kelly picks up her son Knox at the end of the day, she acknowledges that it’s really hard to get him to leave. “I think it's just so cool how the pandemic has forced us to think outside the box. Now we accept that it’s okay that the kids are outside and we need to adapt to how we can prepare them to do that instead of defaulting to ‘it’s too cold.’ What we see as inclement weather is now just weather to them.”

As our preschool teachers have been saying for years-- it’s sort of their mantra-- “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.”

Still, teaching in a pandemic is exhausting and stressful work, without question. But the Nature Preschool staff have risen to the all-outdoor COVID challenge, and we thank them deeply. The sign on Hagy’s Mill is just one small way of making sure they know it.

At the same time, a separate group of educators runs our Monkey Tail Gang program, our long-running after school program, where kids come to us at school day’s end to romp, run, and play outside on our trails and in our forest. They’ve adapted to an all-outdoors paradigm as well, meeting the kids outdoors and staying with them outdoors. It’s another amazing program, and wow, we thank these teachers too. That sign is also meant for them

Nature Preschool has just begun enrollment for the 2021 school year starting in September.  And Monkey Tail Gang will soon as well. Marilyn Tinari, the school’s interim director, is offering tours and information: email her at marilyn@schuylkillcenter.org. She’ll talk through both the curriculum and how we use nature and the outdoors to fight the pandemic.

To our entire teaching staff, our frontline workers, we continue to say, “thank you!”

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org

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