Children become one with nature in nursery’s backyard garden

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This time of year, chipmunks scurry between flower beds, cardinals rest in trees, and wild toddlers create mud pies that never make it to their mouths, but instead everywhere else. 

At the Riverdale Presbyterian Church Nursery School, it’s the season for Explorations in Nature, found in the Henry Hudson Parkway facility’s backyard garden. 

The eight-week program is geared for children between 2 and 5, where they not only work in the garden but also learn about animals and insects, play in water, and participate in scavenger hunts and picnics — all inspired by nature. 

These nursery children are true survivors because they are not afraid to get dirty, and like true Bear Grylls, they also eat food from their surroundings.

“Last year we grew mint and basil, and the kids made pesto from the basil and we made fresh mint ice cream,” said Lauren Mactas, the nursery school’s executive director. “They rub the herbs in their fingers and smell them, and they actually tasted it, so they saw the difference in how it’s used in food.”

From fine-tuning motor to enhancing science skills, the garden learning is virtually endless when it comes to subject ranges. By measuring dirt, for example, the kids go from mud pie bakers to mathematicians.

“We really study and integrate into our program an amazing way to bring nature into early learning,” Mactas said.

There is some splashing around when it comes to working with water, but the focus remains on water properties from its solid form compared to its liquid state once it melts. It’s not an elaborate science experiment, Mactas said, but a lesson that gets the children’s feet wet in terms of scientific exploration.

There are social components as well, allowing the kids to practice their verbal skills. Like when communicating observations or sharing things they find amazing, they learn the best ways to express those sentiments to each other.

“The children enjoy nature together, and there is a beautiful dialogue between the children which is necessary to their social development,” Mactas said. “Any skills that are essential to child development can be honed though this nature program.” 

The children sing a song each day, sometimes tasked with creating their own. Music is incorporated into their daily routine through natural objects like gourds — hollowed squashes with seeds still inside that, when shaken, can turn into a musical instrument similar to a maraca. Sometimes the students paint with sticks and make prints of the leaves as well.

The children close the program with a farmers market and a lemonade stand, which they essentially run themselves. They spend time preparing the week before by deciding which fruits and vegetables they want to sell. The kids also make their own signs and aprons, and parents come out to buy the literal fruits of their toddlers’ labor, as well as some of the produce they donate as well. 

In the end, the market raises funds for supplies the school and students may need, using a pricing system the kids develop —another way to involve math.

“Getting dirty can be a very wonderful experience for children, and works in a similar way as finger painting,” Mactas said. 

“We have our own beautiful space, and in this program, we want them to utilize the outdoors as much as possible.”

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