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More Than Letters: Literacy in Nature Preschool

As the Nature Preschool teacher, one question I’m sometimes asked is, “how do you teach literacy if you’re outdoors?” That’s a great question, actually, because literacy development is one of our key focuses in Nature Preschool. And the answer, in short, is that we’re ALWAYS teaching literacy! But how, specifically?

In my last blog post, I introduced you to a day in Nature Preschool. Our days are characterized by discovery and play, and literacy development starts there, which is educationally speaking, an excellent way to start. Research recently released confirms that long-lasting educational benefits of preschool are directly related to the quality of the program. Researchers identified high quality preschools as containing three key elements: small class sizes, student-directed learning, and open-ended play – all of which are core elements of Nature Preschool.

Two important elements of Nature Preschool’s approach to literacy development are that 1) students can continue their learning from Nature Preschool by making connections at home, and 2) literacy development includes but goes far beyond simply learning letters.

Early learning literacy

Making connections at home means that my students don’t just see letters as shapes on a worksheet; rather, students can identify them in their own environment. A few weeks ago we studied leaves and used the letters “V” and “U” to tell the difference between the red maple and the sugar maple. Now when the preschoolers play in their own yards, they can both find those letters AND identify trees! We’ve done similar lessons using natural found objects -- sticks, acorns, drawing in the dirt -- to create letters and numbers. Learning organically like that is easy for preschoolers to continue at home. At Nature Preschool, play = learning and they learn to expect to learn while playing. In this way, they’re learning that letters do not just belong on a worksheet at school, but instead are all around and have meaning and are part of interesting discoveries. That is literacy development.

Literacy is also not just letters. Literacy is also about comprehension, phonemic awareness, rhyming, phonics, and vocabulary. In Nature Preschool the stories I choose each week have a purpose. Right now we’re reading some great stories about turkeys, such as “T is for Turkey” and “The Great Turkey Race”. As we read we are making connections to our hikes, previous lessons or stories, and asking comprehension questions. Books are a powerful tool for reinforcing and extending our outdoor discoveries!

Literacy in nature based preschool

While we play we are always learning new words and sounding them out. Letters are an important part of that process, but we don’t just go through the alphabet and learn letters from A to Z in alphabetical order. Instead, we learn letters in context because then they have meaning behind just the name of the letter. For example, we’re talking turkeys this week because they’re hearing about turkeys at home with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. I hid all of the letters in the alphabet in the woods and on our daily discovery hike we went exploring and searching for letters, looking for the “missing letter.” Students discovered that the “T” was missing, and once they did, together we brainstormed what words might start with T. One of the preschoolers came up with turkey and we discussed turkeys and what we knew about them. The next day we revisited the concept of turkey and its related letter and meaning and learned about where they slept – in trees! The preschoolers thought it was amazing that they slept in trees!

Learning in the outdoors

Learning letters outside

Learning letters in nature based preschool

Another day on our discovery hike we played that we were acting out a turkey’s life. Acting is a great way for student to get creative, process their learning in their own way, work cooperatively with their peers, express themselves, and talk in front of others – which is all part of literacy development. They associate letters with words, and words have meaning and are connected to meaningful experiences. When they use their words and discoveries in new ways through their own play – that is literacy development.

And an added benefit of our explorations and discoveries is the preschoolers’ expanded vocabulary. For example, the turkey game we played was called “camouflage,” which was a new word to most of our students. They are quick to ask questions about things they’re curious about or wonder about as they soak up the outdoor world, and their discoveries become part of their vocabulary – which is literacy development.

Nature based preschool

Nature based preschool

Nature based preschool

Several moms of Nature Preschoolers have commented that their children are always asking how to spell things -- which incidentally is another byproduct of the way we approach learning in Nature Preschool – we explore and ask questions each day, which fosters kids’ sense of inquiry.

One other item worth mentioning is that our outdoor time of discovery and exploration is the basis of our learning and learning through play, and that outdoor learning follows us inside every day and is reinforced and extended through our small group time. While learning about turkeys, in our indoor classroom students had turkeys with all kinds of letters on it. I rolled a dice with a specific letter on it that they identified and then stamped onto their turkey. Literacy development. Another day they were picking up beads with tweezers (that all important pincher grip that’s a building block of literacy development) and feeding a turkey. Preschoolers also wrote in their journals about their turkey experiences.

Early learning and literacy

Early learning and literacy

Early learning at West Side Christian School

Early learning and literacy

Early learning and literacy

So you can see that literacy development is an important part of what we do in Nature Preschool. The beauty of preschoolers learning outdoors is the sensory-rich experiences and opportunities to explore and discover on their own, which translate into meaningful and memorable experiences that frame their learning.

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