The first week of school is when we begin to know our students and make observations about their skills, personalities and interests. I was surprised by the abilities of this year’s two-year-old class, but I shouldn’t have been. Even though just a year ago they were babies coming with a parent to pick up their older siblings at the end of the school day, it was almost half their lifetime ago. They have grown much in that year and know and do so much! Some tell a detailed story about a summer experience, are experts about trains, zip through the single piece puzzles, dig deeply in the sand, jump with two feet, use the “potty”, share a toy with a friend, turn the book pages by themselves, pass the paint brush to a classmate waiting at the easel, and wipe their mouth after snack.
Sensory experiences engage them and introduce materials from the natural world—rough and smooth pieces of tree bark, fuzzy and smooth leaves, big and small leaves, leaves with a strong smell, dry and wet sand, sea shells and water in jars and tubs. The hard objects should be too large to choke on, and the softer ones, like leaves, need adult supervision to remind the children to keep them out of their mouths. What sensory experiences do your children have with natural materials? How does experiencing the natural world fit in with your local, state or national standards?
Outside there are many more natural sights, smells, sounds and textures to experience. By making contact with natural materials a daily experience, children will soon be experts in their local nature. It does take additional time to wash hands, dump sand out of shoes and change into dry clothes. This extra time must be acknowledged and supported by the program administrators and the families. Finger plays, story-telling, conversation and songs can make the clothes-changing clean-up time rich with language and caring.