A Worm Hotel, the Chicken Shangri-La, and Well-Deserved Recognition for Teddy Bear

Beth Fryer was accustomed to being marginalized by other preschool educators. “I’ve been scoffed at by colleagues for years [who said] ‘All she does is play outside’,” she says. She was considered “out there” for placing so much importance on outdoor play for her students. At over 10,000 square feet, the Teddy Bear Day Care and Preschool of Traverse City, Michigan had an enviable amount of space for outdoor play. Her colleagues simply didn’t understand what is obvious to all of us in the Nature Explore community; that outdoor play is true “whole-child” learning. Beth couldn’t even get interns from the local college’s early education program.

Until a few years ago, some puzzle pieces were missing from Beth’s great outdoor space. She found those pieces at a 2011 conference where she discovered the Nature Explore program. After hearing an initial presentation, Beth sought out every Nature Explore workshop at the conference. She then ordered and digested the Resource Guide, and purchased all the Nature Explore books. These books led to other works that discussed the rich learning in outdoor play.

For Beth, the missing puzzle pieces were falling into place. She now understood that her ample outdoor space contained a lot of unnatural play materials—such as cars, a playhouse, and several plastic toys—that didn’t promote the kind of learning she wanted for the children.

“My thought was to get rid of that stuff and install natural elements,” she says. And she did. “I started by asking the children: If they could design the most perfect place to play, what would they want?” The children started talking about it. They liked boats, to play in the mud, to build. With help from her whole family, her parents, and students, Beth’s outdoor space took on a new character over the next several months. Natural materials quickly replaced plastic, and new activity areas came to life.

Creative play reached new levels as children developed their own ideas on how to work with unscripted natural materials. Where plastic toys suggest predetermined usage, open-ended natural materials inspire creativity. Beth says that children new to her preschool are usually accustomed to plastic toys. They often don’t know how to play in the outdoor classroom. Yet after seeing the ongoing activities of the other students, these children always “get it” very quickly. They soon become immersed in the rich learning environment for which her program is now known.

As for the colleagues that “didn’t get” the richness of learning in Beth’s outdoor play space: They do now. Other educators now invite Beth to speak at conferences, and to hold workshops. They visit her Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom and are quickly won over. And even those who don’t know about Teddy Bear’s long waiting list have probably heard about the reputation of Beth’s graduates when they reach kindergarten. “My kids that go into kindergarten are off the charts and they’re wondering what in the world we’re feeding them here.”

As a matter of fact, Beth feeds her students only fresh, unprocessed food, some of which is planted, watered, and harvested by the children. Annexed to the 7,000-square-foot outdoor classroom is a 3,000-square-foot raised bed garden. And the eggs the children eat? Some are brought from the “Chicken Shangri-La” henhouse that the children maintain.

Another of the outdoor classroom’s features that the children tend is their “Worm Hotel.” This area does not contribute to the children’s diets, but does feed their learning. And nearby is the very popular mud area. “We celebrate International Mud Day all the time,” says Beth

Outdoor classrooms are most effective when adults interact with children in ways that deepen and extend the learning involved in play. Beth and her teachers make the learning visible to their students. When Beth placed a set of measuring cups in the digging area, the children spontaneously developed play scenarios with them.  Through self-initiated play, enhanced by their teachers, the children learned math, literacy (writing down the different amounts), research (learning about measures larger than their cups), and much more. The teachers, attuned to the variety of learning domains involved in the play, ensure that high-level learning is integral to the experience. It’s no wonder that these children have become stars in kindergarten. We all wish this for every child.

At Teddy Bear, the Creative Curriculum is the basis for working with the children around their interests. Teachers also use ideas from the Montessori Method and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

Beth says that nature and children are her two favorite subjects, and she credits her association with Nature Explore as inspiring deeper connections between them. We are proud to count Beth Fryer and her teachers (and interns*) as inspiring members of our growing Nature Explore family.

*Although for a long time Teddy Bear didn’t fit the mold for intern eligibility, it now has devoted interns from the local college’s early education program.