Kristenza Nelson is a lead teacher at Dodge Nature Center Preschool. She earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and is working on her Master Degree in Environmental Education from Hamline University. Working with children in nature combines both of her passions. She considers it an honor to foster these connections.
In early March of 2020, the children at Dodge Nature Center Preschool were tapping maple trees in the woods. Together we stretched our trunks and reached our fingers toward the blue sky. Children gave thanks to the Pancake Tree as they whispered, “Wake up!” Spring is a magical time together. The children were relaxed and comfortable in the March thaw. Hope returned with the light and the earth began to squish beneath our feet.
Then, news of Minnesota’s first COVID case came. Within days our joyful preschool fell silent. Our school doors closed as COVID arrived. It was heartbreaking on so many levels.
How were our young children and families coping in isolation? How could we continue to cultivate the many relationships we’d fostered? Could we engage three, four and five-year old children in ZOOM meetings? These were trying times, a far cry from being together on the trail. How could we bring children’s voices back to the center? The project that follows emerged from those days of isolation.
During the closure we invited families to stay connected to our classroom community by offering twice weekly ZOOM meetings that included songs, stories, and time to share. We reached deep to find ways to stay connected. I knew that screens were not ideal and wanted to continue to support their connections to the natural world. I encouraged the children to choose a nearby tree that spoke to them. I asked them to create drawings to share in our virtual spaces and newsletter. We created our own forest, as amazing and unique as each child. How would we continue to grow in place? Perhaps like trees. This was my proposal to families:
Hello Beautiful Spruce Families,
The last time we were together at Dodge we were learning all about Maple trees. Tasting the sweet sap and noticing the buds emerge on the branches.
We are proposing a long term project that begins with choosing a tree to observe over an extended period of time. You don't have to be experts to learn together. There is magic in discovery.
Begin by having your child make a drawing or take a photo of a tree.
Write down one observation a week to share with the Sprucies.
What does your child notice?
Remember to ask open ended questions.
- Who lives in a tree?
- What do you think is happening?
- Where are the leaves?
Do trees eat?
There are never any wrong answers!
With my whole heart I believe that nature is the best medicine for whatever ails us. Encouraging families and children to go outdoors to observe their trees brought them outside and brought us together. We came together through art, nature and observation. We came together while staying apart, just like trees in the forest.
This fall we are grateful to be welcoming children back to Dodge Nature Center Preschool. COVID is still present in Minnesota, but we have learned spending time outside is the safest way to be together. For that we are grateful. It is beautiful to see children back on the trail enjoying the autumn glow beneath the beautiful pancake trees.