Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s February 2018 issue.
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photo courtesy of Fledglings Nature Preschool
Nature education and conservation have always been the heart and purpose of the Montana Audubon Center. But since 2014, the center has offered a way for the smallest among us to also take part in the beauty and protection of the outdoors. Fledglings Nature Preschool offers little ones a unique learning experience that just can’t be simulated in the classroom.
While at Fledglings Nature Preschool, students spend at least 80 percent of their time outdoors. According to Carolyn Sevier, Montana Audubon Center director, the program is unique to the region for three reasons: “Our location on 54 acres of open space with immediate access to Norm’s Island and Riverfront Park, our staff of nature educators who excel in facilitating outdoor, process-oriented learning, and our approach of making nature the primary location for and focus of the program. We are the only member of the Natural Start Alliance (a nationwide network of outdoor-focused early childhood education) in Billings, and one of only four in Montana.”
The staff is led by preschool teacher Sarah Chatwood, a native Montanan with a love for adventure. Formerly a classroom teacher, Sarah says she, “Enjoys the freedom of discovery that environmental education allows.” Sarah was honored in 2015 by the Montana Environmental Education Association (MEEA) as Environmental Educator of the Year, she is a certified Montana Master Naturalist, and mom to two great kids.
Support for Sarah is provided by the whole team of Teacher-Naturalists at the Montana Audubon Center, including outdoor education professionals from Montana and around the country with a combined 50 years of experience.
The Fledglings staff has created an environment of learning that includes a balance of structure and variety for the curious minds that attend the preschool. Daily activities often vary depending on opportunities presented by the natural world each day and may include leaf-collecting, bug-finding, journaling, and even canoeing and cross-country skiing. Students also tend their own garden through all seasons and use the harvests for snacks during school. Surrounding the flexibility allowed for nature are monthly program themes with built-in goals and emphasis on specific academic skills.
“In all situations, children are encouraged to problem-solve for themselves and among friends, which gives them the opportunity to discover their own strengths and prepares them to confidently enter K-12 education,” Sarah explains.
We can all agree that kids are happier, healthier, and more engaged when they are outside. But we also know Montana weather can be extreme. Carolyn notes that “learning how to be outside, in all kinds of weather, builds confidence and preparedness. Nature becomes not just a place to go but a regular part of the day. Being outside, especially in a natural area, connects with all senses and encourages the kind of self-directed discovery play that is a critical foundation for learning.”
And while this time outside is good for the kids, it’s also good for nature. “In order to care about something, you have to form a connection with it, and that connection is best when based on personal experience. Kids who have meaningful experiences in nature, especially in the pre-K years, grow up having a deeper understanding and respect for nature,” says Carolyn and Sarah.
After three years of operation and the demand for nature preschools surging, Fledglings is poised for significant expansion. The Fledglings Nature Preschool will be increasing capacity at the current site for the 2018-2019 school year. For more information about this exciting program, call the Montana Audubon Center of Billings at 406-294-5099.
about the author…Anna Rogers is a transplant from the Carolinas with a background in marketing and graphic communications. She is a wife and mother who loves to garden, cook, and practice yoga. Anna is passionate about travel, which at its core is really a passion for people, as she believes people and community are what truly bring life and beauty into a place.