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ISSUE 121 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/12/2007

Nature educates, nurtures

By Lyndel Owens
News Editor

Friday, October 12, 2007

There is a program growing at Open Door Nursery School (ODNS), a non-profit day care center housed at St. John's Church in Northfield, and St. Olaf is helping to cultivate it.

ODNS head teachers Barabara Howe and Sue Anderson '72 have worked with St. Olaf Professor of Biology and Curator of the Natural Lands Eugene Bakko to develop a program that uses St. Olaf's Natural Lands to teach Northfield children about the environment.

Primary instructor Katie Handler '08 highlights how the partnership is mutually beneficial. "This program clearly goes along with St. Olaf's commitment to sustainability, and it also supports good relationships between the school and the Northfield community. It's a great partnership. Students get off the Hill and interact with Northfield residents (the preschoolers), and the children are eager to learn about nature."

The sessions are half an hour to 45 minutes long and meet at St. John's church or on St. Olaf's Natural Lands. This is the inaugural year.

ODNS aims to familiarize the kids with basic environmental concepts such as how nature, trees and habitats function.

Bakko believes this method will encourage the preschoolers to "explore nature on their own terms" and will later help them identify with a collective awareness of environmental issues.

Games, activities and discussions are present in each of Handler's visits. Retaining a young child's attention is difficult, she admits, so she keeps each lesson brief.

In September, Handler taught the students about trees and some fundamentals of the environment by fostering a connection between the student and their natural surroundings. "With kids that age it's good to keep it short and sweet. Instead of giving cold scientific facts, I relate it back to them."

For example, Handler expressed how fascinated she was that trees drank water using their roots instead of outlining the actual process.

Environ-mental education has left a noteworthy mark on education pedagogy, as more teachers use experiential methods when explaining nature. Anderson conceived of the idea after learning of similar practice at a conference and after reading about Northfield's Greenvale Elementary School's second and fifth grade classes visiting St. Olaf natural lands for annual field trips.

Last year Anderson and Howe met with Bakko to outline particular concepts. Handler approached Bakko about helping to teach when she learned about the initiative. Since then, Handler designs her lessons in accordance with the particular theme but decides details such as how and when to integrate the kids.

Two St. Olaf student assistants accompany her for each visit, giving the children one-on-one attention and helping the kids focus. Arbuckle said Anderson and Howe continue to emphasize environmental themes the rest of the time.

Handler hopes that these early experiences in children's lives will have a long-term impact.

"It's so important for children to learn about nature, have positive outdoor experiences, and learn how they can help the environment. This will provide for fulfilling lives by helping them to connect with and understand the natural world, and allows them to gain confidence, explore their imaginations and be physically active," Handler said.

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