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Our Interview with Secret Forest Playschool

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April 15, 2016 by PO.P Press

The Secret Forest Playschool is part of The Duluth Nature Play Collaborative. Together we aim to educate, inspire, connect, and advocate for nature play for young children in Duluth, MN.

Background: In 2010 when Meghan’s son was born she realized there was a need for a nature-play program in Duluth area. As an advocate for play and nature she made it her mission to courageously and creatively offer a rich experience for children to learn and grow. After researching what programs in other parts of the world were doing to meet the need of their youngest generation and with the support of her family and friends she opened Duluth’s first nature-play program, Secret Forest Playschool in the fall of 2012.

Since opening Playschool, Meghan has been able to fully appreciate that when you provide freedom with guidance, children are able to set their own limits and they become unstoppable! Meghan says, “This approach speaks for itself… real learning is happening here. I give children the chance to take personal responsibility to assess a situation, take a risk and learn from the outcome (whether that be positive or negative). Giving them this control results in the child feeling more confident and they continue to challenge themselves.”

Today Meghan’s passion for protecting childhood continues to grow! Her wish is “…that the play continues past these days.”

What is the school’s basic philosophy about outdoor play?

Every child that walks the paths of The Secret Forest or enters The Secret Garden is given permission to feel vulnerable and take safe risks in a loving environment. Through the seasons, these children develop trusting relationships and a sense of ownership among the places they play in Mother Nature. It is because of these experiences that they have the opportunity to establish friendships and skills that carry them into their school years and beyond.

Fresh Air. We are outside everyday, in all weather, in all seasons. We embrace what Mother Nature provides us. The children play and run with fresh air in their lungs and the earth under their feet.

Experience. Children use their senses to feel the wind, see a rainbow, taste a snowflake on their tongue, hear the leaves crunch under their feet and smell flowers. Children engage in unstructured, self-directed play. They imagine, create and explore. They also regulate themselves as they assess situations, solve problems and take appropriate risks.

Trust. Our loving environment, encouraging children to develop trust in their own inner and outer worlds. As confidence grows they start to believe in themselves as they are met with challenges. They also find comfort in knowing that others are there to encourage and support them.

Wholeness. In a fast paced ever-changing world, we recognize that balance of wholeness for families and their children is necessary. In a community where each child has a unique story and personality we provide a place where peace (happiness, love and safety) grows and the mind, body and spirit are nurtured.

 

How do the kids stay happy, warm, and dry?

Secret Forest Playschool is an outdoor-based program where children will spend a significant amount of time outside each day so being dressed in appropriate clothing is key! Quality gear is expensive and children grow fast, so to lessen the burden of the families who have children that attend Playschool provides each child with a winter parka and snow pants, and Polarn O. Pyret rain bibs and jacket to be worn while they are attending as part of an “outdoor uniform”.

Since we have started to use PO.P we have been able to sustain play outdoors longer during the transition of seasons. From the time the temps rise above zero, to the rainy days, and back to the first snow fall our PO.P rain bibs and jackets have, and will continue to allow us to be outside in all conditions. I love the high quality of these products; the stirrup (that go under their boots), the size range, and the colors. I also have hopes of someday including the PO.P mittens (wool, rain and shells) as part of our outdoor uniforms.

How many kids attend the school and what are the ages?

Playschool has a small but strong community. It serves an average of 16 families a year (usually 8 from the year before and 8 incoming every fall), with 10 children (ages 3-6 years old) in a class that either attend on M/W or T/Th.

How many hours do you spend outside every day?

The children get dropped off as early as 7:30am and get picked up as late as 5:00pm. How much time we spend outside varies on the season/day. But I would say in the colder temps (40F and below) we spend anywhere from 3-4 hours outside on a given day and when there are warmer temps it can be up to 8 hours a day. On the typical “cold weather” day we are outside from 9:30am-11am or so and then again in the afternoon from 3 or 3:30-5:00pm. And on warmer days we will start outside around 9am and sometimes stay out until 5pm (only coming inside for bathroom breaks), as the kids nap outside in hammocks! And yes, they actually do sleep. Playing outside in the fresh air, controlling their bodies, assessing risk, problem solving with peers is hard work for these little ones so they enjoy quiet time…

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Are there any weather conditions which would cause you to stay inside?

On the occasion Mother Nature does prevent us from going outside. When there are electrical storms or when the temperatures are dangerously low. But in all other conditions we are outside playing! It is all about being prepared. The children never seem to complain about snow on a spring day, rain in the fall, or it being too hot or too cold. If we waited until the weather was ideal or perfect we would never go outside in Duluth, and just think of all the experiences and opportunities that we would miss out on.

Do you enjoy meals outside?

Yes, the children and I love to picnic outside. When the weather is warm enough for them to have their mittens off and as long as it is not actively raining, we picnic outside for snack times and lunch time (in which the children bring a bag lunch from home)- plus it helps cut down on the need to get the vacuum out to clean up the crumbs 😉

What are the kids’ favorite outdoor activity?

Well, I asked them and this is what they said…
“Climbing… snow mountains, rocks, trees… really anything”
“Planting seed in MY garden plot in The Secret Garden.
“Building forts!”
“Playing hide and seek.”
“Going on hikes.”
“Looking for bugs and worms.”
“Tapping the Maple trees.”

“THE SLEEP OVER!” -at the end of every summer we have a family camp-out where we watch an end of the year slide show, have a pot luck, send off our graduates, have a campfire with s’mores, sleep in our tents and then get up in the morning and have pancakes with the syrup that the children helped collect from The Forest! It is a magical memory for all.

What is the messiest muddiest activity on the agenda?

These kids never miss the opportunity to use a net to catch tadpoles at The Backyard Pond, make mud pies (or cakes), try to catch a fish using a stick with some yarn tied to it in the creek OR use campfire soot and chalk that they have filed/shredded to mix into potions or use as face paint. There is rarely a day that goes by that a child goes home after a day at Playschool, that they are not tired, happy and dirty!

Do the kids like to check out wiggly worms and spiders?

Absolutely! These little ones enjoy rolling over rocks at the sand pit, rotten logs down in The Pine Tree Forest and looking under leaves down at the Fern Gully for any kind of critter that might move. When they find a worm, centipede or beetle you often hear them call to their friends “come see what I found!” and they all gather round and talk about what it is, where they think it came from and where they think it is going and usually before they release it back into the wild it has a name!IMG_6477-2


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