I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We lived across the street from a woods and river, and I played there all the time. With friends, we built forts and swung around on grapevines. I noticed that the hawthorn flower had a funky smell, and to this day, whenever I smell hawthorn flowers, I’m transported back to those woods.
My parents took me to visit Mitchell Park Conservatory and Boerner Botanical Gardens. Boerner Botanical Gardens especially made a huge impression on me. It had gardens on a scale that I did not have at home and a diversity of plants from around the world that could never fit into my yard. It expanded my horticultural horizons immensely and was a fantasy world to me.
I started out in college majoring in music, playing the organ. In my sophomore year I took a botany class and was fascinated. I switched my major to horticulture and loved designing and planning gardens. Once I decided to pursue a career in horticulture, I knew it had to be working in a botanic garden.
I got my dream job in 1977, when I started working at the Garden as an assistant horticulturist. Over the years I have been fortunate to work with talented staff to plan and plant 27 distinct display gardens and four natural areas.
Amy Kerr Wells
Here I am, at age 5, with my Grandma Kerr in her garden in Iowa, which we visited every summer. I loved her garden—she told me that she had a fairy living in her garden, and we would look for it as soon as we got there. Her flowers were big and tall—almost unreal to me as a youngster. Her magical touch in nature really stuck with me; her flowers were amazing, and I did not see them anywhere else.
I still carry that “garden magic” with me. I ask our camp teachers to have kids look for the magic in a seed, a tree, a pond—to take the time to just be in nature, whether that is listening to all the sounds in the Kleinman Family Cove, digging in the soil sandbox, chasing fireflies, or rolling down a hill—taking it all in—the sights, sounds, and smells.
My parents were born in Ireland, and, to hear them tell it, were outside every day. We lived on the west side of Chicago, and when I was 3 years old, my dad decided that we would put in a garden. I decided that he needed my help. We gardened, played under the sprinkler, jumped in puddles, and came home covered nearly head to toe in dirt just about every day.
The influence of being exposed to nature—the pretty and the messy—has very much influenced my life. Having this childhood, with parents who encouraged us to “live” outside every chance that we could, allowed me to value its importance and led me to teaching children how to learn in and through nature.
I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and “designing” and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we “discovered” a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.
This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.
As a mom and working artist, I try to think of ways I can introduce my 3-year-old daughter to the outdoors and the power of imagination through craft projects. And as an employee at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am inspired by all sorts of family programs and drop-in activities for kids and families that celebrate the outdoors.
What’s fun about nature art is that it starts with an adventure and ends with a surprise. For instance, the “family of owls” that we created may appear in story time later.
Here are some of the nature-inspired activities and kid-friendly crafts that have come out of my journey as a mother and continue to get the best reviews from Laila, my toughest little critic.
Dirt is cool
Even when she was a baby, my daughter was intrigued by dirt. She is still fascinated by it, in any form. In the long winter, when we’re tired of being cooped up, we bring a little of the outdoors inside and put together a mud pie prep kitchen. Supplies include dropcloth, potting soil, spray bottle, pouring cups, pie plates, and sticks, rocks and/or sand for decorating.
Happiness is when mom says it’s OK to play with your food
This is the best way to distract a picky eater, or wow guests with an inexpensive dish you can design with your kids. Laila and I made these creations out of various fruits, vegetables, herbs, and cheeses.
It’s an outdoors treasure hunt
Laila and I start by taking adventure walks and filling our pockets or a basket with sticks, leaves, flowers, and other found art objects. Everywhere you look, there are free art supplies.
Rock ’n’ roll with it
Hand-picked rocks can be collected, cleaned, painted, and polished to transform into precious stones with a story attached. Even little nature lovers can apply homemade or washable paint to their rocks before an adult adds a clear topcoat finish. The rock art can be used as a paperweight or embellishment to a potted plant. Add a pipe cleaner and clothespin to make it a photo holder.
One day we found pine cones and added fabric, buttons, and ribbon to create a family of owls that found a new home in our Christmas tree. Another time we used sticks, wire, glitter, and beads to build a twinkling mobile.
When the projects are done, we talk about what we made, where our supplies came from, and who we can share our creations with.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of outdoor exploration with my mom. I hope Laila someday will feel the same way.
Want to get more nature into your child’s education? Learn about our Nature Preschool program.
A growing body of research tells us that children are better off when they have daily contact with nature.
Nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps children focus, increases physical activity, improves eyesight, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships.
Chicago Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists credit their personal growth and professional development to early doses of “Vitamin G” (a term used to describe the benefits of exposure to green environments). Their words and childhood pictures best capture the joyful effect of nature on their lives.
Deeply Rooted Educators
Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D.
“Even though I spent the early part of my childhood in Hyde Park, Chicago, I can’t remember a time when as a family, we didn’t take every opportunity to head out of the city to northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, or northern Michigan for camping, canoeing, or hiking. Later, we moved to (almost) rural New York, where my sister, friends, and I became intimately familiar with the acres of woods, fields, and streams behind our house, disappearing for hours to explore our private, imagined world. As an adult, when I had the opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden to combine my expertise in learning science with my love of nature and share it with others, I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”
“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”—Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
“Some of my fondest memories of childhood include our summer vacations at Silver Lakes in southwestern Michigan. My brothers and cousins and I would spend all day, every day, playing in the sand and splashing in the water. We’d take the rowboat out to the ‘lily pads’ to see if we could catch any frogs—we were (disappointingly) never successful, though we did manage to get the rowboat stuck once for what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few panicked minutes.
I have a particular fond memory of my close cousin Jean and I filling buckets with sand, mixing in just the right amount of water, and carefully making a batch of sand pancakes to cook on our folding chair stove. The simple pleasures derived from the freedom to play and explore outside throughout my childhood reinforces for me the importance of ensuring those same opportunities for play time in nature are available for my own children at home and the children participating in the programs at the Garden—making sure there are places to run, to hide, to dig, to splash, to have fun.”
“I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and ‘designing’ and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we ‘discovered’ a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.
“Preschool educators have long known that animals, plants, water, and other aspects of the natural world delight children and draw them in as learners.”—Natural Start Alliance
This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University, Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.”
“Here I am in my teens at a Chicago River cleanup in the woods, holding a toad. I was lucky enough to have attended a Chicago public high school that got me out in the forest preserves and into nature. The experiences are part of why I studied ecology, and also why I wanted to inspire other Chicago teens to do the same. Now, I recruit Chicago public high school students for Science First and College First.”
Deeply Rooted Conservation Scientists
Kayri Havens, Ph.D.
“My best childhood memories were all outdoors…playing in the garden, growing vegetables, picking up seashells, going bird-watching. That love of nature has stayed with me, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to have a career that allows me to continue to explore and study plants and the natural world.”
Pati Vitt, Ph.D.
“There are very few pictures of me as a child, most of them posed…except this one. It is outside in an open field, where I and my siblings tramped around at will, falling in love with the outdoors.”
Andrea Kramer, Ph.D.
“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in the corn belt where, as you can imagine, trees were not very common. I spent a lot of quality time either climbing in or sitting under this particular tree when I was young. A few years after this photo was taken, a family of owls took up residence in it. I can’t imagine a childhood that didn’t involve nature play—climbing trees or sitting quietly with binoculars to watch owls interact with each other and the plants that they called home helped me see the world from a larger vantage point, and made me want to understand it by becoming a scientist.”
Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.
“Growing up in a part of Australia where the weather was often nice, it was easy to spend most of your time outside. I am not sure I can remember when I was not outside in flip-flops and board shorts. No matter what we were doing, there was always something to get me excited. Sometimes it was something as amazing as a dolphin swimming close to the beach or a kangaroo caught by surprise on our hikes. It was clear from a young age that the thing that got me so excited was the flora, and a botanist was born. The smell of the eucalyptus still sends memories flooding of hikes after rains, recalling the wonderful discovery of small patches of donkey orchids in winter.
Ultimately, I combined this love of native flora with working in the garden. I would often spend afternoons walking through the Adelaide Botanic Garden for inspiration and to marvel at its collections. I went to university to study horticultural sciences and volunteered on weekends at the botanic gardens as an undergraduate. All of these interactions played an obvious role in my life’s trajectory as a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.”
Deeply Rooted Horticulturists
“My mother was a teacher and felt that it was so important to incorporate learning play. Here’s what she had to say: ‘Lisa, there was probably no time in your early years that you were not connected to nature. Starting with the simple joy of playing outdoors, you watered flowers for grandma and dad, made daisy chains, raked and played in the leaves, built snowmen, ice skated, and sculpted sand castles at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis. You planted gardens, learned to fish at Deer Lake. You loved having collections of rocks and leaves (author’s note: yes, I majored in geology and my childhood rock collections are still in the basement). You showed a love of dogs, gerbils, fish, white mice, even squirrels (you fed them peanut butter crackers at the back door). You were bonded to nature as a young child and it continues to this day!’”
“In my early childhood, I remember playing at my friend’s house. They had a very old forsythia bush, perfect for ‘house building,’ great tunnels, and hours of imaginative fun! When we were a bit older, the same best friend and I would meet down by the creek (between our two houses about a mile from each of us). We would spend hours walking in the creek bed, looking for crayfish, spiders, plants. (We brought skunkweed home to harass our siblings.) We would build forts with branches and grasses. When I was 12 years old, on a family vacation, we went to an enormous conservatory at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. I walked into a breathtaking environment, and I knew. I knew I wanted to make people feel that same rush, excitement, wonder, as I did, and I was going to do it with plants. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“This picture (left) was the first time I had flowers of my own, and it was so exciting! Even to this day I still try to make sure I have at least one zinnia plant somewhere in my life, whether it’s in a garden I work in at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at home because I fell so in love with the flowers as a child.”
Anyone who reads the volumes of research can easily see all the reasons why a nature preschool is not just a real preschool, but should be a standard for all preschool environments to aspire to attain.
Here are my top five reasons why a nature preschool should be the choice of all parents when deciding on their child’s first preschool experience.
No. 1: Children in nature preschools learn by doing and with hands-on activities.
You must be hands-on when you learn in nature. You cannot be a passive learner; you must engage. Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child”—i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.
According to Ken Finch, president and founder of Green Hearts (a conservation organization dedicated to restoring and strengthening the bonds between children and nature), “Nature preschool students truly learn how to learn…developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one’s turn, and following simple directions.”
No. 2: Time learning in nature supports creativity and problem solving.
Many children spend time in preschool working on one-answer solutions. Their work is very cut and dry, limiting the amount of critical thinking or creativity needed for the answer. Play in nature allows children to try several solutions to a problem. Nature is unpredictable, and often, answers might not be what we would like, but we learn from this too. A great example is “Spike”, the titan arum that did not bloom here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Was the anticipation and all the new knowledge that so many people learned while waiting a waste of time? Of course not! Spike went back to the greenhouses and is being studied. Our horticulturists have gained even greater knowledge of titan arum cultivation for Spike’s failure to bloom.
Stephen Kellert, social ecologist and senior research scholar at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies states, “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”
Children engaging with nature experience similar failures, and learn from them. They try new ways to solve problems, and find out more about why their solutions did not work for the next time. Nature allows for children to discover how to adapt.
No. 3: Time spent in nature helps reduce symptoms of ADHD.
Researchers Dr. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory have dedicated themselves to studying the relationship between physical environment and wellness. They have done a number of studies in particular related to ADHD and time in nature. These studies have shown children with ADHD have improved concentration after time spent in nature. I have witnessed firsthand how children respond inside the classroom after spending time outside in nature. They really are ready to listen, concentrate, and settle into tasks either on their own or with others. Think about how you feel after you return from a walk or time outside in your garden—don’t you feel stress-free?
No. 4: Children who attend a nature preschool are better observers.
“Nature literacy awakens habits of perception (sensory awareness) and cultivates a rich vocabulary of search images (knowledge of place). Through these, our students connect to the natural world in a meaningful way.”—Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills, A Project of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy 2011.
Children must take the time to listen for birds, look for small clues that animals might have come down a trail, and notice the differences between leaves on two different plants or trees. Observation in nature is not just about knowing the names for plants or creatures, but being able to recognize them when out on a hike.
No. 5: Nature Preschool fosters an appreciation of the world around children.
When a child engages in an activity of any kind, an appreciation develops. Think of children exposed to various genres of music; they become better attuned to musical nuances. It is the same for children who spend time on a regular basis in nature. They see the beauty, explore the changes, and learn to enjoy their time outside. This appreciation is carried over to adulthood.
“Research on human development and learning has long established that the early childhood years are a crucial period in the formation of lasting adult values. Could we do any better than to ensure that one of those values is a deep love for the outdoors?”
In her article, “The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Way of Knowing,” Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., notes, “Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a lifelong source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning.
Sadly, the ability to experience the world…as a source of wonder tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings; children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models, rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment.”
As a parent, can you choose a learning outcome for your child that is more important than that “sense of wonder?” Even for an adult, wonder is so important in order to be a lifelong learner.
As you make the choice of a preschool for your child, I hope that you will take some time to read a bit more on nature preschool values. Are these indoor/outdoor classrooms just the latest new kid on the block, or is there more to this trend? Which ways do you find best for children to learn?
It’s easy to find fun outdoors—with sticks, chirpy crickets, magic circles, and more.
“Hands in earth, sand, mud: building, digging, sewing, baking—these are what humans DO.”
For fun, interesting, and education-based ideas, we turned to a fun, interesting, and education-based crowd: the 190 teachers, home educators, day care providers, park district staff, museum employees, librarians, and just-plain-curious caregivers who came together at the Garden for a Nature Play conference (sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Wilderness, and the Alliance for Early Childhood).
That morning, opening remarks were short, but sweet. A few thought-provoking highlights are quoted here. Then we did what any group of early childhood-oriented people would do: We all went outside to play.
At our outdoor “playground,” 19 organizations shared their fun, interesting, and education-based ideas for playing outside. You may recognize many from your own childhood.
1. Pick Up a Stick
How cool is this? In 2008, the stick was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! It’s in great company: the jump rope, dominoes, the Frisbee, Tinkertoys and, yes, the Easy-Bake Oven are co-recipients of the honor. The possibilities of the stick are endless—it’s a musical instrument, a light saber, a wand, a fishing pole, a giant pencil for drawing in the dirt, a conductor’s baton, the first leg of a tepee, and anything else a child says it is.
2. Learn to Lash
If one stick is interesting, a pile of sticks has real 3-D potential. The art of lashing teaches kids to turn something small—two twigs lashed together—into something big: a ladder, a lean-to, a stool, a swing.
3. Find the Art in Nature
Twigs + stones + leaves + “tree cookies” + seeds = a nature “painting,” a sculpture, an imaginary animal, backyard trail markers, or utterly simple, charming drawings like the happy face made out of seeds shown with our headline.
“For children, the most powerful form of learning is with their hands.”
4. Nature as Paintbrush
Sure, you can use a standard brush to paint with, but feathers, pine needles, and arborvitae segments not only expand the creative possibilities but also feel wonderfully different in the hand.
5. Kid-Made Kites
Send the imagination soaring with a simple paper bag and a couple of kitchen skewers—in moments, it’s a kite! And then there’s the process of decorating it with ribbons and streamers…
6. Cricket Bug Box
Catch a cricket (or buy a dozen for $1 at the pet shop). Friendly and chirpy, crickets are many kids’ first experience with the insect world. Even little kids can collect the foliage, food scraps, and water-soaked cotton balls to accessorize a temporary shoe-box habitat.
“Nature is children’s real home.”
7. Lift a Log
One of the simplest of all outdoor projects: lift up a log that’s been sitting on the ground and be amazed by the tiny wildlife that lives underneath it! Don’t forget to bring your magnifying glass.
8. Make a Magic Circle
Tuck a few wooden embroidery rings into a backpack. Placed on the ground in the woods, or the garden, or the sand, they become magical circles for kids to explore. What’s in yours?
9. D.I.Y. Dyeing
Rainy days need projects, too. Natural dyes made from vegetables (beets, onions), fruits (grape juice), or spices (turmeric, chili powder) transform undyed yarn or fabric into a personal style experience.
10. Paint Chip Color Hunt
One quick visit to the paint store can send kids off to hunt for hours, as they try to match nature’s colors to the humble paint chip card. (Handy to keep in the car for unexpected delays, too).