Wildwood Nature School - Portland, Oregon, USA
The driveway to Wildwood Nature School
My second visit to an educational establishment was a really exciting experience. I had contacted Wildwood Nature School, a very small setting teaching up to 12 children in a residential neighbourhood high up on a hill above Portland. Nicole, the owner and Lead Teacher of this preschool, teaching 3-5 year olds in her home kindly agreed to show me around. I arrived in the most beautiful of locations, inspired already by the scenery - you can see for miles around from the preschool!
The stunning and vast view!
I had specifically contacted Nicole after reading their school website and becoming very intrigued. Nicole has written a great piece about the place of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the preschool curriculum. I have attached the link below and highly recommend you give it a read; it is a brilliantly written exploration of what STEM can look like in preschool settings and how it can be embedded throughout the learning opportunities given to children. http://www.wildwoodnatureschool.com/2017/07/what-does-stem-look-like-for-preschoolers/ Now this privately run setting seemed like a well kept secret as I arrived - from the outside the setting is just another house on the street. You even enter through the garage on ground level. Going through the garage you walk into a very calming and neutrally decorated indoor environment where the children spend half of their 4 hour session. They begin in the indoors and enjoy free-play with a range of natural objects and exciting learning opportunities. I instantly recognised some of the furniture that we have recently set up in Mary Swanwick nursery, and it was great to hear that it lasts really well!
A pillar is turned into a tree using natural fabric and materials - transforming it into the centre piece of the room
Now the name of this setting gives a big clue to how children learn in this setting - through nature and the natural world. The children access the outside woodland and big garden area daily and choose their own play throughout, scaffolded and supported by the Teacher and Teaching Assistant where necessary. Children are challenged to take risks on the physical climbing ropes and by climbing the trees. There is a woodland attached to the garden and magical secret paths that lead into the woods where the group often goes to learn about and observe the world around them.
The vegetable garden
Children use small-world creatures and figures in the garden area
A play house
The water area is in the shade near the house
One really exciting idea that really stood out to me was Nicole's idea of 'sit spots'. The children 'learn how to learn' by establishing and regularly accessing their own personal 'sit spot' in the woods. They are encouraged to find their favourite place in the woods and then this becomes their own sit spot that they will return to each time they visit. They will choose what they want to do in their sit spot - initially when they first attend the setting they will just be learning to spend a few minutes in their space and learning to concentrate before gradually being able to spend a bit longer there. The children may do observational science drawings or art drawings or collect favourite things from their sit spot. They may just choose to sit and look at the world around them or they may be excited to find an insect in their environment. This idea of revisiting and extending concentration and awareness of a particular place in the world was really interesting and I can imagine how much individual children may get from this. Adults too!
A child's nature journal that they had chosen to collect and store a range of leaves and flowers in
Natural objects displayed around the room
The class frog!
Investigative and open-ended fine motor opportunities
Creative trolley, complete with mark-making tools for open-ended creations
Colourful artworks stand out against the neutral walls
Children's work is celebrated on the wall
Small-world and construction - a combination that naturally goes together to extend play opportunities
Small-world and construction
Number line at child height
Now private settings in America are under no obligation to follow a set curriculum or to teach in a particular way - there are no formal assessment techniques used to assess children. It is up to settings as to how to choose to support and teach their children. At Wildwood Nature School the children are supported along a journey of readiness skills for kindergarten that follow the children's interests. The children often begin the year by learning about the 5 senses and being nature detectives. Once they have established routines and are transitioned into the setting, the children choose a theme or a question and they follow this until they feel it is finished. The theme is explored deeply and there may only be 3 or 4 themes per year. For example, one year children were interested in Andy Goldsworthy's art and they spent a month and a half following his art as a theme. The children are currently learning all about the eclipse as this has really captivated their imagination! They will read stories and find out answers to their questions. Another aspect of the setting that really stood out was food. The children grow their own food in the garden and cook daily. They may choose to be a chef each day and the chef's harvest the food for snack and help to cook it for the group. Growth and caring for living things is valued - at the beginning of the year each child plants a pot with a plant of their choice and cares for it throughout the year. They also help to care for the chickens and with composting. It was interesting to hear how Nicole supports parents with Parent Education evenings termly. The parents' choose what they would like to learn about. For example, one year many families were finding that they needed to support their children through transitional changes and emotional challenges in the home - Nicole got a Councillor in to offer guidance as to how best to support their children through these transitional times. another group of parent's were interested in learning more about phonics. It was great to hear that educational provision given was supportive of family needs and development. I had a brilliant time looking around the Wildwood Nature School. It was great to see that children were supported to become independent, through ownership of their environment and being encouraged to take risks. They are challenged to dress themselves appropriately for the weather and help with tasks such as cooking.