Look who we met at NAEYC

by Susan Wirth, Nature Explore Outreach Director for the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation

“You need to write a blog,” I was told.  “Can you get it to us by Wednesday?”

“I don’t blog,” I replied.

“Just give it a try, you’ll really enjoy it.  It is a new way for people to communicate and share ideas,” was the response.

I could see I was losing the techno-debate as my colleagues tried to drag me into the 21st century, but I gave it one last try, “I like the phone…and I’ve become very proficient at email.”

Silence.  Then a gentle nudge. “You talked about how excited you were after attending the NAEYC conference.  Why don’t you blog about that?”

“That’s true about NAEYC.  Well, okay, I will give it a try.”

So, dear readers, here is my first stab at blogging.

Over the last six years I have had the opportunity to attend the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) annual conference.  I have always come home inspired and energized by people I meet there, but this year’s conference in Florida was special.  Yes, the palm trees and warm breezes were a welcome respite from an early snow back home, but what made the conference truly memorable was the excitement I heard from so many educators around the country who have created certified Nature Explore Classrooms and are seeing, first-hand, the positive impact on children when nature becomes part of their daily lives.

In previous years, my Nature Explore colleagues and I were part of a small number of presenters talking about the research showing the benefits of connecting children with nature.  This year the NAEYC conference boasted close to thirty sessions focused on children and the natural world.  How exciting is that!  Our Nature Explore team was invited to present several sessions to share new information including: “Infants and toddlers in outdoor spaces: creating nurturing, well-designed learning environments inspired by nature” and “A community collaboration and partnerships that support design and creation of nature-rich outdoor learning environments.”   We also offered a fun, collaborative presentation with the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education focused on inspiring tomorrow’s environmental stewards.  We met so many passionate educators looking for authentic ways to teach children life-skills and foster their sense of wonder through nature.

That alone would have made it a great conference. But before our sessions even started, we had a stream of enthusiastic conference participants stop by our Nature Explore exhibit booth because they had just attended a “terrific workshop” presented by the National Coalition for Campus Children’s Centers where educators from Southeast Missouri State University shared how they use their Nature Explore Classroom as part of their curriculum.  Participants wanted to learn more.  Other attendees made a special effort to come see us after being “inspired” by Diann Gano from Illinois who talked about how her Nature Explore Classroom transformation has benefited children and families.

Folks came by to say how moved they were in hearing Charlotte Watts’ story about the positive impact of the Nature Explore Classroom “makeover” at her early learning center in Texas.  They also made a point to tell us how engaged they felt after learning about the power of play in a New Hampshire Nature Explore Classroom and how encouraged they felt after hearing from our co-research partners at Child Educational Center in California about the skills children develop in nature-rich outdoor classrooms.

Over the course of the conference my heart was lifted and my spirit was incredibly touched as I connected with so many people who are working toward the same mission.   Our mission to make nature part of children’s daily lives grows exponentially when we share our stories of success…large or small.  Not everyone has the opportunity to attend a national conference, but, with technology, most everyone has a chance for their voice to be heard.  Please tell us your stories of engaging children with nature.  Let us hear from you!