Friends’ Central Grows Its Outdoor Learning Program for Early Childhood
Young children learn through play and outdoor exploration in FCS Nature Nursery and Pre-K programs
A Nature-Based Preschool
Established in the fall of 2021, Friends’ Central School’s Nature Nursery offers an innovative, outdoor program full of organic opportunities for learning, child-led exploration, and unstructured play, as well as lessons in friendship, sharing, and community. It also provides a nurturing environment where children learn to be students and build a strong social and academic foundation for Pre-K and Kindergarten.
Nature Nursery is nothing short of “magical”, says Suchita Fiorillo, lead teacher in Early Childhood at Friends’ Central School. “There’s nothing that we do in the classroom that can’t be done outside. Our campus is amazing and having the freedom to explore it on a daily basis is such a gift.”
Each school day begins and ends indoors, but the class typically spends three or more hours outdoors. The Nature Nursery “classroom” comprises the entire, 18-acre campus of Friends’ Central School. The children explore the campus pond with its frogs and turtles, watch birds and animals at the bird blind, and hide in a bamboo forest. They run around the open fields, create pies in the mud kitchen, and play in the nature playscape with tree stumps and logs for balance beams. The spacious FCS property offers endless inspiration for learning through play and exploration.
“The freedom to explore and run and use their bodies is so good for them!” says Teacher Suchita. She also points out that they avoid some of the “sensory overload of being inside all day, given that the students are so young.” She says, “when you’re outside, there’s a natural calmness to it and children are able to focus more.”
Says parent Rachel Rolfe, “One year at Friends’ Central’s Nature Nursery changed my child in a way that I didn’t imagine would be possible in such a young child. It was very much a child-led exploration, and that’s unique. It’s unlike any program I’ve come across. It was a transformative, beautiful experience.”
Explorative Learning: Nurturing Wonder and Curiosity
Everything the children do outdoors each day is an opportunity for exploration and learning. They may spend hours at the pond searching for creatures and asking, “what is this bug we’ve never seen before?” Another day, they may plant seeds and get a little lesson about native plants from Rebecca Zimmerman, Lower School science teacher for the younger grades.
One of the childrens’ favorite activities at Nature Nursery has been visiting the resident chickens. Situated in a coop right on the FCS campus, the chickens provide a context for explorative learning.
“Our chickens are a huge hit,” says Teacher Suchita. “Each class takes care of them for a week at a time. Sometimes our Spanish teacher, Senorita Storm, will go see the chickens with us. While visiting the chickens, the kids will learn the word for ‘chicken’ in Spanish. It’s explorative learning—actually showing them the things in their life and teaching them about it in Spanish.”
Through these kinds of learning adventures, Nature Nursery and the Early Childhood Program at Friends’ Central nurture the wonder and curiosity that is inherent in young children. It provides a safe and natural environment where children can ask questions and explore their world. It also prepares young children for the next step on their educational journey.
A Foundation for Life-Long Learners
Teacher Suchita describes the Early Childhood Program at Friends’ as “the foundation of the classroom” and where children are “getting accustomed to peers, to teachers, and being a part of a community.”
She says, “when we are outdoors, there are lots of organic opportunities to learn. The math, science, and literacy goes right along with it. Numbers and science are everywhere, but it’s acorns and sticks instead of numbers on a chart.”
By the end of their time in Nature Nursery, children are primed and ready for Friends’ Central’s Pre-K. Outdoor and play-based learning remain central to the Pre-K curriculum and throughout the Lower School grades. In Pre-K social and emotional growth, problem-solving, letters, and “more concrete skills as writers, readers, and mathematicians are emphasized,” says Lower School Principal, Melody Acinapura.
Says Principal Acinapura, “Students in Nature Nursery are learning first how to be students—how to ask questions, to make sense of the world around them—and to become excited about developing into lifelong learners. They are beautifully prepared to enter Pre-K.”
This sponsored story was written by Beth Gilbert-Crowell, photos by Polina Bulman Photography