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Friday, 16 December 2016 12:41
Nature As Your Classroom: Pre-K in the Park’s Unique Learning Approach
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Students generally learn at a desk. They are given information to memorize from a book, and are expecting to regurgitate that information at the drop of a hat. For Heather Stewart, Director, Apple Blossom Bunch Day Care, she wanted to give students the opportunity to have a more hands-on learning experience. She wanted children to learn more about the world around them beyond the pages of any book. A nature-based pre-school in Saratoga Springs, the program focuses on social understanding and the community aspect. Says Stewart, “I modeled this program after the television show Mr. Rogers. I invented this school based on childhood memories and childhood development.” Students can learn the most from memories they created by being in school, particularly at ages three through five, and Stewart wanted to make sure that each memory a student creates was enjoyable. “Experience is in the community,” recalls Stewart. “If we want to learn about a farm, we can travel to one. We don’t need to just sit around and learn about a farm from the pages of a book.” The school emphasizes social understanding by making students aware of the current problems in the world. Stewart believes that these students should be aware of the challenges that they will eventually need to face. “We focus on aspects such as the homeless and animal shelters,” says Stewart. “The upcoming generation will have more problems than the previous generations, and students should be aware of those problems early on so they can deal with it down the road.” Each classroom is comprised of fourteen students and three teachers. Pre-K in the Park combines traditional and hands-on learning throughout each day. On a field-trip day, after students arrive at 7:45 a.m., they partake in free-play. Stewart describes this free-play as “natural.” There are no electronics in the room, and there is minimal teacher involvement. Children have the ability to decide how to use the materials that are in front of them. A blessing is said before eating lunch. According to Stewart, this blessing is more so about teaching students where their food comes from. “We want the kids to know where their food comes from and how it’s made. So we try to thank the earth for our food at least three times every day.” Each field trip corresponds with a letter in the alphabet. Students dress in their “muddy buddy” suits (multi-layered outdoor suit designed to keep children clean and comfortable), and venture out into the community. For example, students visited the firehouse to correspond with the letter F. Sometimes food will be brought back from certain field trips to help students learn about the food-making process. Stewart believes in teaching students in a health-conscious environment. She prides herself on providing an environment where parents are reassured that their students are well fed with organic food. Stewart and the rest of her staff hope that PreK in the Park will help reinforce positive memories for students that can be applied later in life. “Kids learn best while they are doing,” says Stewart. “We are creating memories based on actual involvement in the community, instead of drilling information from a book into student’s heads.” PreK in the Park’s “home base” is located at the Saratoga Arts Center, and Congress Park. It provides students the opportunity to learn as a group while still experiencing nature and their community. More information can be found on the school’s website, http://www.appleblossombunch.com/prek/.