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Setting Up a Quiet Space Outdoors

Often we see quiet spaces or calm down spaces indoors in early education programs, but what could it look like if created a similar space outdoors? I believe children benefit from having a similar structure in their learning environments, both indoors and in their outdoor classroom. Here are some tips to get you started!

(Do you have pictures of your outdoor quiet space? I’d love it if you share them so I can add a variety of pictures to this blog post!)

Tips on creating your Outdoor Quiet Space:

  • Establish a space in your program as a “quiet” place and teach that this is a place a child can go when they need to relax, reset, and calm down. 
  • In one program they had designated spots outdoors as “Quiet Zones”. They used rope and triangle cloth flags to indicate these spaces (see picture above). This could be an easy way to create multiple areas and children could even help with the creation of flags so they had some feeling of ownership or belonging to the space.
  • I often establish a bean pole trellis (see picture below) that is easy to create and affordable. I just set up five bamboo poles that are 6 feet tall. Tie the top and create a trench around the base to plant bean seeds. This is a small enough space that creates some privacy and feels cozy. This same structure could be covered with cloth for similar privacy earlier in the season or when the plants have died off.
  • Another affordable space would be to build a simple fort structure. My son built the photo below for an outdoor program in my area. He built a solid main structure and the children added pine branches, other sticks, and leaf debris to create privacy.
  • Maybe the space is mobile ~ What about establishing a special “Quiet Chair” ~ perhaps tucked away in the garden or in an area of the Outdoor Classroom that tends to be less busy. Having a folding chair makes it mobile and could give children the options of moving their space or having multiple spaces.
  • Reinforce that this is a safe and cozy space that helps us feel calm and safe and that children can choose to go to this space to play alone for a while
  • Offer calm down materials, which outdoors might look like a bin that you bring out from storage with a few board books, a non-breakable sensory jar, and various loose parts to explore. 
  • Post a visual of the calm down technique you use in your program. To make this work outdoors, I laminate the visual and post it on the storage bin so it’s protected from the elements. In my preschool classroom I use the Tucker Turtle Technique. (see resources below)
  • Create a durable mini version of books that you use to teach social emotional skills. Lamination can help them last longer and you still may need to replace them yearly. 
  • Introduce the space during outdoor circle time and model how it is used. For our indoor “Tucker Turtle’s House” we only allow one child to be in the space, but I find this harder to manage outdoors. I would decide with your teaching team if it’s an ‘alone space’ or if a pair can be in there together. 
  • I tell a lot of social emotional stories with my turtle puppet. There are many life lessons that we can
  • Reinforce with simple tales of how turtles see things differently. Moving at their own pace, taking time to tuck & breathe, resting when they need to, have calm and confidence to race a speedy Hare, and the list goes on. 
  • Work with small groups to practice using the space and revisit it often so children remember why the quiet space is there. 
  • Reinforce the quiet place when you see them experiencing strong emotions or if a child seems like they need to regroup
  • Reinforce to staff that this space is NOT used as a punishment.
  • What if your group is on the go? Instead of a designated spot for the quiet space, maybe have a piece of cloth or small portion of yoga mat that serves as a spot that children can go to be alone. 
  • Our space indoors is a wooden cube, and using more durable materials I can imagine creating something similar outdoors though I have not yet created that myself. (If you have, I’d love to have additional pictures to add to this post!)
Affordable & easy quiet space ~ bean pole trellis!
Simple fort structure & kids add pine branches or leaf debris

Related Resources:

“The Quiet Chair” ~ tucked away in the garden

Resources for teaching “Tucker Turtle” from the Pyramid Model / Challenging Behavior 

https://challengingbehavior.org/?s=tucker+turtle

Check out Susan Cain’s Ted Talk and Book – “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”

Read more thoughts on my blog post ~ “Private & Quiet Spaces”

Wonders of Winter Master Class Series

Begins January 2, 2023, Monday evenings 6-8pm EST

Ready to feel confident and excited to teach in the outdoor classroom this winter? This 20 hour professional development series is designed to equip early childhood educators with the tools and resources to keep children engaged in learning throughout the entire winter. Each session we will dive into practical and actionable steps that educators can take to bring outdoor learning to life!

In this master class series  you will have:

  • Ten live Zoom sessions with interactive group work that will allow you to connect with classmates working with similar aged children 
  • Downloadable resources that can be printed and implemented right away
  • Q & A session for students to ask questions, work through challenges, and get support overcoming obstacles
  • Student dashboard with all the materials you need including sample parent letters, information to share in your newsletter, and curriculum activities to keep your children engaged all winter
  • Private “Wonders of Winter” facebook group to continue to share ideas all winter long. (This short term “pop up” group will open Jan 1st and will stay open until  April 2023.) Students can show what’s working in their program, share photographs, ask questions, and continue to build their confidence!
  • Lifetime access to the student dashboard, so you can rewatch the recordings and access the materials all in one spot. 
  • An uplifting and unique opportunity to engage with like-minded educators who want to embrace winter and expand learning opportunities outdoors! The friendships in this professional learning community will give you something to look forward to during darker and shorter days of winter.
  • Earn up to 20 hours of Professional Development (based on the number of sessions you attend live)

Investment: $197 (payment not due until January)

Date/Times: Begins January 2, 2023, Monday evenings 6-8pm EST

There will be TEN Zoom sessions and the topics include:

1 ~ Winter Woes to Winter Glows ~ Shifting our Mindset & Gearing Up for Winter 

2 ~ Policy Development & How to Address Parental Concerns & Worries 

3 ~ Winter STEAM Kits ~ Developing grab & go resources for your classroom

4 ~ Children’s Literature, Poems & Songs for Winter

5 ~ Math Outdoors in Winter 

6 ~ Science Explorations in Winter (outdoors & indoors)

7 ~ Gross Motor Games (outdoors & indoors)

8 ~ Winter Inspired Process Art 

9 ~ Maple Sugaring 

10 ~ Wrapping Up Wonders of Winter Series!

Mark Making in the Outdoor Classroom

Are you looking for new ways to add mark making, writing and drawing to your outdoor classroom?! We can bring out paper and pencil and keep things same as usual. Or we can try out a variety of other ideas that might just spark some of our reluctant writers to begin mark making!

  • Cardboard “clipboard” for each child – these are made from recycled cardboard with a binder clip to hold the paper on.
  • Clipboards (regular sized or half sized) – attach pencil with string so it’s easy to manage outdoors.
  • Nature Journal – seasonal/ monthly, easier to manage – Check out a video about my process with tips & tricks in our “Nature Inspired Teacher” Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/april.benzzajko/videos/317045453779607?idorvanity=1843474542616408
  • Fall Nature Journal – https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1jLb5f4DzvsgWr8FaMlhZJban8mlPhk5ppHGNIKhMePI/edit?usp=sharing
  • Wooden leaves (see picture above) or tree cookies – draw on with markers. Somehow this project is more magical outdoors!
  • Small chalkboards
  • Chalk – onto rocks, lumber of raised beds, or sidewalk
  • White boards & markers (better in warmer weather as the markers don’t write well in cold temperatures)
  • Pencils and other writing instruments (have a management plan)
  • Paper
  • Paint pens on rocks or tree cookies
  • Observation sheet for children to use
  • Ten frames (poster board)
  • Tally sheets
  • Graph paper
  • Large easel pads when just a few sheets left so if it gets wet, no big deal

Come join the “Nature Inspired Teacher” free Facebook group! I share lots of nature based teaching tips and inspiring ideas. Click this link ~

“Nature Inspired Teacher” to join us and build community with like minded educators! 

Pinecone People

“Pinecone People” – Today I made “Pinecone People” with a group of 20 preschoolers out in the forest. I wasn’t sure how the natural materials would stick because everything was wet from two days of rain. I sort of cheated and pre-glue beads to the pinecones so there would be some level of success, even if the other bits were falling off, at least the heads would stay on! I also had some plain pinecones so children could create whatever they wanted.

Pinecones are challenging in that they tend not to stand up on their own and have very little flat area to glue onto. So this led to exploring the following ‘adhesive materials’ and I share some thoughts on how it went.

The next picture shows the art materials I gathered that I thought might be useful to adhere natural materials to the pinecones. I wasn’t sure how these would work but I wanted to have a variety of options to test out. (If I was making these indoors I would have used my trusty low-temp glue gun since it makes things stick even if the surface isn’t flat.) But that’s a challenge of being outdoors is figuring out how to make it work even in damp weather! Listed below are some thoughts on these materials!

Liquitex Acrylic Medium – I read about this in Sally Haughey’s book, “Wonder Art”, and thought I would give it a try. It’s much more expensive than glue but so worth the investment. A little bit goes a long way and it seemed to work well with a wide variety of textures. Obviously the drier the material the easier things seemed to stick, but even with some damp materials it all stuck really well. So I would definitely suggest adding this to your teacher art supply kit. I used a popsicle stick to get a little out at a time and kept it in a little scoop so I could keep track of it.

Glue dots sort of worked especially if stuffed into the pinecone. If the materials were lightweight and dry, they seemed to hold fairly well. Today with the damp though, wet materials did not stick well.

White glue was all but useless since pinecones have very little flat surfaces and take way too long to dry. This was frustrating for some kids and though they can be independent with the glue it really didn’t work well.

Twine & yarn was woven into the pinecone independently as decoration and with adult support the yarn was used to tie the leaves on like a belt or scarf.

Fuzzy sticks (pipe cleaners) ended up being a great tool. Many preschoolers could independently twist them onto the pinecone and have their people holding acorn babies or used to hold on their wings.

Air Dry Clay was not really great to get the materials to stick together but some enjoyed squishing materials into the clay and squishing small bits into the pinecones.

Wool roving wasn’t in my materials bag today but in hindsight I could see the kids enjoying weaving it into the pinecone, creating hair, or making arms with it.

Moss also wasn’t in my materials bag today but would have been fun to add for hair or decorations.

Milkweed Pods all the little pinecones became ‘babies’ and I was wishing I had some little pods to use as cradles!

A related discovery was that using washable markers on wooden beads led to smears and bleeding. I discovered that the wooden beads and colored pencils worked well though the color was light. I was tempted to use a permanent marker but knew that many other aspects of the projects needed adult support.

Have you ever made “Pinecone People”? Any tips or tricks that you discovered?!

Life Lesson ~ Embrace Being a Tortoise

Proud of showing up and finishing the Groton Forest Trail Run 10K ~ Sept. 10, 2022

🐢 🐰 This week I was wavering in deciding whether or not to even show up. I was registered for the Groton Forest Trail Run 10K. I know my pace and I knew it would be hard. The three friends I had planned to race with all decided not to race. It was going to be a sunny and warm, but I also knew the humidity would slow me down. I had made a commitment to myself to participate but my summer training plans had gotten derailed so I felt like I had some great reason to skip it. I contemplated it all week and finally the day before I decided to commit to just showing up and finishing, regardless of my time. So the morning of the race, I wrote this reflection on my favorite Aesop fable. I definitely believe that there is a powerful life lesson on embracing being a tortoise! 🐢

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

“The Tortoise and the Hare” is one my favorite stories to share with children. This Aesop Fable resonates with my work as an early childhood educator, my life as a busy mom, and my fitness routine on my mountain bike and hiking mountains. When we let ourselves get into self limiting we can feel like we are too slow or barely keeping up. The lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is a perfect reminder to live an intentional life and to shift our thinking!

Tortoise is in her own race, calm, steady, moving at her own pace, and not worried what others think. She shows up, does her best, and doesn’t allow competition to steal her joy.

Hare on the other hand, mocked Tortoise for being so slow and even had the audacity to take a nap mid-race. Hare wanted to boast and brag, and for Tortoise to see just how slow her pace was.

When Tortoise came upon Hare napping in the grass, she just continued on her merry way.

And it wasn’t until Tortoise was nearly to the finish line that Hare woke up. Despite his frenzied rush, going as fast as he could, pushing his legs to their maximum, wanting to prove to the others that he was still fastest even with the nap..but he just couldn’t get to the finish line before Tortoise.

At the finish line there was also a Community ~ other animals there to cheer and celebrate. In my version of this tale, I know that Tortoise was humble and kind. She had no interest in boasting and instead savored being in the company of others. She encouraged others do their own thing and to continue to work on being their best selves. She knew it had nothing to do with that finish line. That it wasn’t about the time or how many minutes it took to finish the race. It wasn’t about the data on her fit bit or the number on any scale for that matter. Rather it had everything to do with being present and enjoying the journey.

The lesson to me? Calm and consistent wins the race. Yes, there are likely others who seem ahead of you in life. Yes someone may have already achieved what you are still working hard to make happen. Yes, hare is a better runner but being frenzied isn’t how you want to feel. When you focus on doing your best and no longer allow the pressure of someone else’s judgement then no one can stop you. You find JOY in the journey!

How do you want to feel? Really think about this. You might be bombarded with the message that life is about winning, beating out others, and proving your worth. Can you step aside from those belief and tap into HOW you want to feel instead?
🐰 Frenzied and boastful?
🐢 Calm and consistent?

For me, I am going to enjoy the journey. Calm and consistent. Yes, I’ll eventually see you at the finish line! Probably with a stash of pretty leaves in my pocket that I gathered or a photo of a cool mushroom that I stopped to admire. But that’s the beauty of the loving your journey ~ you have the confidence to pause and savor the little moments! 🐢

Which direction are you headed? I want to encourage you to begin that thing you’ve been wanting to do! Whether it’s a race, a new business, or a writing that book…Calm and Consistent and Community will get you there! And I will be right over here cheering you on!

Rooted and ready,

April

Daily Routines for Teacher Wellness

One of the keys to taking charge of your own personal wellness is to take ownership of your daily routines. 

This week I invite you to start small with ONE healthy habit. Something that is achievable and you know that you can stick with. Maybe drinking water or going for a ten minute walk. No matter how small that habit will help build momentum to other healthy habits. 

Then BRAINSTORM a list of different routines to try out throughout your day. Experiment and try out simple and easy morning & evening routines until you find something that feels right. This is not meant to be regimented and rigid, but rather more like an experiment to see what feels best for you! Start with small healthy habits and achievable actions. 

Try to find a mid-day mini-routine that acts as a reset before post lunch slump comes. For me, 2pm is the time that I seem to want to grab a sugary treat or raid the staff room candy jar. I have found that if I take a couple of minutes to make a cup of tea that I am more energized and can finish out my work day on a happy note!

Explore & have fun with this process! For me, one routine is to make sure that I make time to be outdoors everyday. I find a quick walk on my trails in the forest, a little bit of time in the garden, or even sitting out on the patio noticing the birds helps me refocus, especially after a long day working with children. This time outdoors helps me to feel more connected to nature and to myself!

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com
  • Tips for successful routines:
  • Explore what routines work best for you and prioritize those habits in your daily schedule. 
  • Small, realistic, achievable goals. 
  • Written Self Care Action Plans are more effective than thinking about or dreaming about what you might do. Write it down and make a commitment to YOU! 
  • Consistency & preparation are key to making routines easy to implement
  • Accountability partners can help you meet with success!
  • Enjoy the process, gentle self awareness & positive self talk make a HUGE difference! 
  • Set backs, stumbling blocks, life happens – just pick up and keep going! 
  • Remember, your wellness is vital to your physical and mental health so take the time to invest in yourself!
April Zajko, M.Ed, is an experienced nature-based early childhood educator and serves as a professional development leader, college faculty member, and educational consultant. April brings straightforward practical knowledge, rooted in best practices, with humor and tales from the classroom. April is committed to supporting educators bring nature based approaches into their classrooms and early childhood programs. April moderates an active Facebook group called “Nature Inspired Teacher” where she supports educators who want to to dive deeper into this powerful way of supporting children. 

Cozy Winter Nook

 

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We don’t have to escape to a fancy hotel or retreat center…instead we can create a nurturing space at home! Though if you ever get the chance to stay at the Shelburne Farms, pictured above, take the opportunity.

Imagine carving out a space in your home that makes you feel warm and cozy. Maybe it’s a spot to sit and read, maybe it’s a spot to paint, maybe it’s where you lay your yoga mat, or maybe it’s just a spot to do absolutely nothing! 

This week I want you to brainstorm ways that you could create a “Cozy Winter Nook” that offers comfort and softness for you to enjoy over the next couple of months. Winter is a perfect time to embrace slowing down and taking time to nurture ourselves.

This can become a space that is your own personal retreat that you can look forward to at the end of each day. Or a space for you to linger longer during the weekends. We should be making time and space for “purposeful rest” and intentionally schedule in time as a way to refuel and recharge yourself. 

Step 1. Brainstorm: “If you were to add items to a drawer in your bedroom (or a basket) that reminded you to rest, what would you put in there?”

Step 2: Create SPACE: Begin to create the PHYSICAL SPACE by decluttering an area that feels good for you to rest…but don’t get so wrapped up in cleaning that you forget to sit & enjoy your cozy nook! We often need a gentle reminder that rest is important so also create MENTAL SPACE and agree that when you visit your cozy nook it isn’t to be “productive”. Think of what nourishes you and helps you relax…reading for pleasure, painting, journaling, doodling, meditating, etc.

Step 3: Commit to using your space for rest and relaxation on a regular basis. What frequency feels right to you~ daily for 10 minutes, 3 times per week…

What ground rules do you want to set for yourself ~ phone in a different room, little sign you put on the door so the family leaves you alone for 10 minutes…

Set yourself an achievable “Purposeful REST Goal” and write it down as part of your “Wellness Action Plan” 

Step 4: Reflect Write down a few words about how your cozy nook supports you. Post it somewhere so you are reminded to revisit and prioritize “cozy nook time”! When we take time to reflect we begin to be intentional with how we spend our time and reminds us to see the beauty all around us.

Animal Tracking with Children

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Animal Tracks- after a fresh snowfall, it’s so much fun to find and follow a set of animal tracks in your backyard (even cat tracks are fun to find and follow). See how far you can follow the animal tracks and try to figure out who left those tracks.Older children might enjoy drawing the tracks they find into a journal and identifying them. If you carry a digital device you could also use an app like “SEEK” to help you identify the tracks in the moment. 

Fiction Book to get your tracking started – Read the book “Tracks in the Snow” by Wong Herbert Yee about a little girl who sees tracks out of her window. A refrain in the book is wonderful to share when you go outside on your tracking adventure…. “Tracks in the snow. Tracks in the snow. Who made the tracks? Where do they go?”

Snowshoe Stomping Paths- who made this heart? As a big kid, I love to put on my own snowshoes and stomp out special messages or create paths for my preschoolers. I think it’s important to show children how much we ourselves enjoy playing outdoors all year round!

Mini World Animal Play – adding cotton batting to the indoor science area, providing small play animals, and books is a great way to extend their learning.

Photograph Tracks & Research –  Take a photograph on tracks on your hike, then print out the pictures, and look in a tracking book to find a match. One of my favorite books to have on hand in my classroom is called Tracks, Scats, and Signs by L. Dendy. Helping children to learn how to use books as a tool is wonderful life skill and children love to feel ‘grown up’. 

Follow the Footprints activity: Make animal footprints that are to scale of the actual size of the animal. (I am using Deer & Moose this year.) Before the students arrive, put the footprints out in the outdoor space. Then have the children track the prints down and follow the animal.

Flip Flop Tracks – there are lots of pins on Pinterest showing how people transform flip flops into various animal tracks. It would be fun to make these so they could be tied onto a pair of boots, then kids could stomp out their own versions of animal tracks. 

Animal Signs in Winter – Look for other signs of animal activity – nibbled twigs, chewed acorn shells, pinecones that have been shredded, scat, or scratches in bark – as we go on our winter walks we look for signs that animals have been there. There is a great one page handout in the Cultivating Joy and Wonder curriculum (on page 228) to use as a reference. 

  • Look for the ends of twigs that have been gnawed, nibbled, or snapped off
  • Look for bark that’s been gnawed or stripped off, or the the remains of nibbled nuts
  • Look for poop! Animal poop (scat) can help us identify the naimale and what it’s been eating
  • Look for animal homes (squirrel leaf nests, holes in trees, dead logs) 

https://shelburnefarms.org/our-work/resources/cultivatingjoyandwonder

Winter Track Walk Data Collection: Taking a winter walk in the forest looking for animal tracks can be quite the adventure for young children. Explain that in addition to tracks people also look for tree scarring and scat (animal droppings). Look for real animal tracks and other signs that animals have been there. Help the children learn how to approach the tracks slowly without disturbing the tracks so all their friends can see before we make our own tracks over top of them. Over time continue to take photographs of the tracks so that you can print and make a classbook of your discoveries. Who are the frequent animal visitors in your area? Make tally marks or some other data collection so you can see who are the most frequent visitors. 


Animal Track Pattern Cards – give each child their own ‘Animal Track Pattern Cards’ to wear as a necklace. Help children learn the four categories of animal movement (straight walker, hopper, waddler, bounder) and test it out with your own body. I like to start with teaching about the “hoppers” and pretend we are snowshoe hares. When children feel this movement in their body it is easier to understand how different animals move. This makes for a great gross motor game to play! You can get a free printable “Track Patterns” from the Shelburne Farms Cultivating Joy and Wonder book on page 221 – https://shelburnefarms.org/our-work/resources/cultivatingjoyandwonder

Looking for a few more curriculum ideas? Check out these three elated lessons from the Cultivating Joy and Wonder book from Shelburne Farms: 

“Active in Winter! Animals on the Move” p.102-103 (115-116)

“Signs in the Snow” p.106-107 (119-120)

“Owl Eyes” p.131-132 (144-145)

Make a cast of a track in MUD – directions at this youtube video with plaster https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_ksi4Ih_wU&t=54s

Small Scale Track Making : Bring a few plastic toy animals outdoors. Show the kids how they can make the animals walk through the snow leaving behind mini tracks. Tracks can also be made with toy vehicles. Play a version of hide and seek where children make tracks with toys and another child goes to look for where they end & find the toy. Tracking Basket: in the outdoor classroom, display an animal track identification poster on the fence or wall. Keep a small tracking manual or plastic tracking cards available for the kids to explore. Animal Tracks matching cards could be laminated and kept on a ring. One set that is very preschool age appropriate (though the tracks are not to scaled) is at PreKinders. This link takes you to a  *FREE*  printable animal track book with predictable text “This is a raccoon track.” with color pictures and clip art of the track. There is also a set of animal photos and track cards that can be printed out and made into a matching game. https://www.prekinders.com/animal-tracks-book/

Children’s Booklist for Animal Tracks:

Arnosky, Jim. Wild Tracks!  (This is a wonderful book with amazing fold out pages of life sized tracks)
Arnosky, Jim. I See Animals Hiding.
Benjamin, Cynthia and Jacqueline Rogers. Footprints in the Snow. (This is an easy reader book that is often found as a $1 book through Scholastic Book Club.)

Dendy, L. Tracks, Scats, and Signs. (Favorite reference book to keep in my backpack to use to identify animal tracks and scat.)
Dodd, Anne Wescott. Footprints and Shadows.
Dorros, Arthur. Animal Tracks.
George, Lindsay Barret. In the Snow: Who’s Been Here?
George, Lindsay Barret. In the Woods: Who’s Been Here?
Hulbert, Laura. Who Has These Feet?

Hodgkins, F. Who’s Been Here? A Tale in Tracks. (includes tracks from: cat, turkey, moose, skunk)
Jones, Jennifer. Who Lives in the Snow?
Judge, Lita. Red Sled

Levine, Lynn and Martha Mitchell. Mammal Tracks and Scat: Life-Size Tracking Guide (Another great reference book with actual size tracks that make it easier for children to identify.)

Miller, Dorcas. Track Finder: A Guide to Mammal Tracks of Eastern North America.
Selsam, Millicent E. Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints
Sams, Laura. Stranger in the Woods – Photographic Fantasy.
Lawlor, Elizabeth P. Discover Nature in Winter (Discover Nature Series)
Stall, Chris and Steve Whitney. New England Animal Tracks.
Wilson, Karma & Jack E. Davis. Moose Tracks!

Yee, Wong Herbert. Tracks in the Snow. (A great story to introduce young children to tracking. A girl follows tracks around her home and discovers that they are her own tracks from the previous day.)