The Fiddleheads Philosophy: a Mother’s/Teacher’s Motivational Manifesto Jessica Rhys, January 2019 As I look forward to our second year of Fiddleheads Urban Forest Preschool, I wanted to take a moment to write about why I created this program and why we do things the way that we do.
In my youth I worked for several years in both public and private school settings as an early childhood classroom teacher, and then I worked for many more years as a youth worker, community organizer, teacher trainer and school garden project coordinator in a nonprofit setting. Being a stepmom to three and then having my own two children has given me even deeper insight into childhood, and much motivation to create the best possible learning experience to support future generations to happily and confidently meet the challenges of the world. So in creating a new educational venture, I decided to focus on early childhood, a particularly powerful learning period in our lives. Here’s why…
Early Childhood: The Magical Time to Bond with the Natural World I feel passionately about early childhood, and also about the non-human world and our own connection to it. Early childhood is a magical time of life when the imagination reigns, and when we are just waking up to the wide world outside of our homes and families and experiencing life with great joy, curiosity and wonder. In early childhood we are also forming norms. These are our first independent social interactions, our first experiences outside of our families and homes.These are our first steps into the world, and first impressions mean a lot, especially when our brains are as wonderfully active and receptive as they are in early childhood. These years are incredibly important in influencing our social skills, our creative capacity, our understanding of ourselves, and also in developing our emotional bond with the natural world.
At Fiddleheads we focus on helping our students to be socially and emotionally competent and comfortable, and we focus equally on helping them to be observant of and connected to the non-human world. There are many early childhood programs that do a wonderful job helping children navigate these early years socially and emotionally, but there are very few that also allow children to form a true and lasting connection with nature, and which support that connection each day.
Research now shows* that children must experience independent free play in the natural world at an early age in order to form an emotional bond with nature. Throughout most of human history this occurred naturally, but now with our busy lives it’s not so easy for us to get our kids outside, and not always socially acceptable for us to allow them to play outside independently. At Fiddleheads we do our best to create lots of opportunity for supervised yet independent free play outside.We encourage our children to form their own emotional bonds with the natural world. If we don’t form an emotional attachment with the natural world when we are young we are missing a world of connection and meaning in which to find wonder and solace throughout our lives, and research shows that we are also much less likely to act in later life to preserve and protect nature.
Early childhood educators are generally underpaid and undervalued in our society, but the work that we do is extremely impactful and meaningful in a person’s life. I take this work very seriously.I do sing songs and read stories and play games and bake things as part of my job, and it is fun and silly and usually messy and sometimes trying and exhausting, but the way that we do these things and the experience that a child has in preschool is crucial, and my staff and I are always mindful of that.
Getting Outside and Out of Ourselves An astounding fact of American life is that our children are indoors more than our prisoners. At Fiddleheads we go against that trend and spend as much of the day as we can outdoors.Outside time allows for young children’s natural noise and activity levels to go largely unfettered. Everything is effortlessly engaging, and getting messy while playing with ice, mud, dirt, sap or water is perfectly natural here.
Early childhood is an important time to build coordination. Large muscle development happens during these years. Balance and agility are important to practice now, and outside play allows ample opportunity to work on these necessary skills. Dealing with harsh weather and winter clothing provides opportunity to practice patience, deal with some discomfort at times, and to notice our bodies and make wise decisions about clothing, and food and drink and activity levels to support our comfort and energy. Being outside invites us to get “out of ourselves” and notice the rest of the world around us, and that is a very healthy thing for all of us to do.
The Age of Possibility: The Importance of Free Play In order to be competent, confident people we need to be able to take risks and to trust ourselves. Free play in the forest is a great way to build self-confidence, as it can involve taking small risks. Can I climb that hill without holding onto a hand? If I get up on that branch can I get down by myself? How do I go down this steep slope in a way that feels secure? These are daily tasks that we tackle at Fiddleheads, and we see immense growth in self-reliance and ability to navigate physical challenges. And because we have a small group with a high adult/child ratio (1:4), we are able to allow children to explore and play on their own within a supervised area, which allows them to experience a sense of freedom that is very rare and meaningful for people of preschool age, while simultaneously being able to keep a close and watchful eye on them.
The Importance of Imaginative Play Play is the work of early childhood. There must be sufficient time for this. Play and imagination are the riches of these years. The more that we can encourage imaginative play, and the longer that we can foster it, the more beneficial it is for our children. Playtime is like a serving of vitamins that feeds a child’s developing mind. Educators now know that long frontal lobe development in our brains is key for creative thinking and problem solving later in life. The preschool years are a vital time for frontal lobe development, and early childhood is the crucial window for us to build our imagination muscle and to test our own ideas and intuition through play.
Once we engage our cognitive minds and begin to focus on facts and letters and numbers and rules and procedures, our frontal lobe development tapers off. We then enter the age of reason, which naturally occurs for children between the ages of five and seven, but there is a troubling trend in many early childhood programs to attempt to induce this developmental period earlier and earlier. In early childhood we are naturally in the “age of possibility” if you will. Recognizing the importance and potential of this special period in our lives is why we don’t focus on early academics at Fiddleheads. It is when we play and imagine that we engage the creative part of our brain and make it stronger. There will be plenty of time to learn to read at a later, more developmentally appropriate age. The adults of the future will need all of their full creative capacity and innovative problem solving skills to meet the challenges that this world will present to them. For all of our sakes, we really need to let the children play.
The Foundation: Experiential, Engaging Learning Child-led learning is important for encouraging independent, motivated learners. At Fiddleheads we attempt to make all of our learning immediately experiential and engaging. We are not going to study the tropical rainforest because we can’t see or experience it. Instead, we study squirrels and spiders, trees and rain; things that we can take note of every day. We plan structured units around these themes and, while we do have circle time twice a day and project time, as well, we leave lots of room for exploration. We engage with our students about other things that they observe or show interest in. For example, we investigated little holes on a hillside many different times, and then one day found remnants of a mole nearby, thus answering many questions about who had made the holes, if they were occupied, how they were connected. This is a valuable learning skill. Curiosity leads to questions and observations often lead to answers, and then more questions. We encourage and support curiosity to help our students grow as motivated, independent, lifelong learners.
Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Connection Emotional intelligence, empathy, and a sense of connection are things that we work on daily at Fiddleheads through both structured and unstructured activities. Looking forward into the future of our heavily populated, diverse, connected, and mobile world, we will need to build an even more compassionate and thoughtful society. In order to be sufficiently compassionate we need to possess a high degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. At Fiddleheads we strive to create an environment where young children can feel safe, supported and cared about, and where the development of emotional intelligence will thrive. This might mean carrying someone if they need it, hugging or holding them if needed, helping them be comfortable with their clothes, their bathroom needs, their emotional state, and allowing sufficient space to explore their own ideas and inclinations appropriately.
In this safe and supportive environment, children can express and work through their feelings, and also witness and empathize with each other’s feelings. We practice this empathy with other students, and also with other species. Harper, our ever-present terrier, and Nim, our bold and friendly bunny, are valuable companions, as are the wild animals that we witness and interact with during the school day. Recognizing that everyone and everything has its own experience and its own point of view and some kind of emotional life—even plants and bugs—is a valuable perspective that helps us to feel whole and allows us to connect to everything around us and feel secure. This is lifelong work and there is only so much that we can accomplish at preschool, but we do our best to support children to accept their whole emotional selves, and also to find themselves connected to everything that is.
School Readiness and the Next Chapters It would be great if kids could play outside for the rest of their childhoods, but we understand that this is not possible for most families, including my own. Many students at Fiddleheads will go on to traditional classrooms in public or private schools. We do want children to be prepared to enter these new experiences comfortably and with confidence. Much of our work at Fiddleheads is applicable to traditional classroom readiness. We have a structured routine, and we have expectations of accountability. We practice literacy readiness by reading aloud a story connected to our thematic activities every day. We have daily craft and project opportunities that require sitting at a table and practicing proper use of tools and materials like scissors, glue, paintbrushes, crayons, etc. We cook and bake, which requires following sequential steps and measuring exact amounts. We work hard to hone our emotional intelligence and social and communication skills. We foster independent problem solving skills that help children feel confident in new situations. These are all practices that will translate into success in a traditional classroom. The time that we spend on creative free play, emotional intelligence, exploring physical challenges and supporting child-led investigation of the natural world is helpful to our students as whole people. Our work is in aiming to have our outgoing students ready to learn and take on new experiences, so that they are confident, socially prepared, curious, and successful with the next chapters in their lives.