Preschoolers Head Outdoors For 'Forest Day In The NEK'
The Jay Community Recreational Centre is 300 acres of wooded trails surrounding an open meadow and a mountain stream. It also serves as a classroom for preschoolers from across the Northeast Kingdom.
Just a short walk into Jay’s town forest from the Cross Road trailhead, you’ll come across a circle of stumps that serve as an outdoor classroom for the pre-K program at Jay-Westfield Elementary School. On the other side of the trail is a clearing called the 'mud kitchen.' Lying among the sticks and fallen leaves is a collection of old pots and pans and kitchen utensils.
That’s where a 4-year-old from Coventry named Maxwell mixed up some of what he called "Bye-Bye Soup."
He was generous enough to share his recipe: "So I, so I took some dirt ... and then I put some rocks in it and then I put a pinecone in."
This is a special field trip for Maxwell and his Coventry classmates. But Jay/Westfield Preschool teacher Julie Ste. Marie brings her young students into these woods throughout the school year for outdoor education. She planned this day to share her outdoor classroom with other preschool teachers in the Northeast Kingdom.
"It’s a dream. It’s a dream location," she said. "So I wanted to share that dream because I’ve been sharing little bits and pieces of my outdoor educational opportunities during in-service times with other teachers. I’ve presented at a couple of in-service days and I said, 'I’m gonna get you guys all up here one of these days.' So over the summer I planned this day."
She called it "Forest Day in the NEK." Along with inviting preschoolers, teachers and parents, Ste. Marie recruited student volunteers from around the region.
High schoolers from North Country Union’s Early Childhood program helped the preschool groups navigate between various activities set up throughout the property. One activity was the pump track, where a group of eighth grade boys from a Troy mountain bike club guided preschoolers on balance bikes.
Some of the activities were familiar parts of a preschooler’s day, like story and snack time – just outside. But other activities were unexpected, like making nests and building fairy houses where fairies – and more tangible small woodland creatures – can take shelter.
Beth Chambers is one of the adult volunteers on hand. She’s the afterschool program coordinator for North Country Supervisory Union, and she also has a background in outdoor education. She says getting students outside is particularly important in places like the Northeast Kingdom.
"First I would say that this area is so rural that it’s really important that kids are accessing the nature around them," she said. "… If you live in this area and you don’t go out in the snow, then you’re not doing much all winter. And I’ve noticed the decline in students feeling comfortable going into the woods and just playing independently."
Chambers says it’s important to introduce kids to the outdoors while they’re young.
"Kids at this age are totally ready to take a risk and make a mistake out in the woods, climb a tree and fall down," she said. "As they get older, it gets harder."
Chambers also said making mistakes is a big part of the process, "So getting to them early, and spending this time outdoors and teaching them that failure is something that’s going to help you learn and grow is really important."
Even as rain started to fall on Forest Day in the NEK, it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of these preschoolers.
Organizer Julie Ste. Marie says it’s all part of the outdoor experience.
"So it just connects science with dramatic play, with literature, with math, with curiosity, and just excitement about learning all in one. It’s the total package."