Monday, February 27, 2012

Chippewa's Nature Preschool now the topic of a book by one of its founders

Rachel A. Larimore outside the Chippewa Nature Preschool

by Janet I. Martineau
For five years now, a quiet little success story continues to play over in Midland
Literally play.
And one which is now documented in a book available worldwide, for those who might like to join in on the fun.
It is the Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool, located in a specially-built 5,000-square-foot building on its property at 400 S. Badour.
“Our kids dig in the mud; in fact they are encouraged to jump in a puddle and get muddy. They visit  the wigwam. Build forts. Play in a sand pit. Climb on logs. Go on hikes to find insects and watch maple syrup being made.”
So speaks Rachel A. Larimore, the director of education at Chippewa and the author of the book “Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool” (National Association of Interpretation, 93 pages, $24 paperback and $10 PDF). It is available through
Open to ages 3 and 4, the school has so far served more than 200 kids, and at the time it opened in 2007 was one of but 12 nature-based preschools in the entire nation. 
Today, says Larimore, there are 20 nature-based preschools.  And since she helped develop Chippewa’s from ground zero, “and we found out no one had written anything down about starting nature preschools, back then and still today,” she decided to pen her book.
“Once we opened we also were getting more and more calls, and site visits, so there clearly was a need.”
Students enrolled this year come from Freeland, Bay City and Mount Pleasant as well as Midland. They attend half-day sessions, from two to four days a week; 16-18 kids per session with three educators.
And those little ones  are not wimpy when it comes to the weather.
“I think there has been only three days when we couldn’t go outside for a session; due to thunderstorms,” says Larimore. “They go out in the worst of winter. Families learn quickly to dress the kids for the weather.”
There are just as many girls enrolled as boys too. “We have lots of girly-girls enrolled, who might wear a tutu, be cinderella princesses, but also pick up worms without any concern.”
Cover of the book
On an average day they start outside in the special play area outside the two-classroom  building or go on a hike to explore some of the 1,200-acre Chippewa property -- its forests and meadows, Arbury Pond, Sugarhouse, Homestead Farm with its garden and animals, the wigwam.
Then back inside the schoolthey work on math, literacy and science skills;  drama, movement  and art; learn more about  nature; listen to stories and sing songs; sometimes cook. There is group time as well as individual time.
“At the beginning of the year, you can tell right away the kids who have not played outside,” says Larimore, who was raised on a vegetable farm in Illinois, “and the play is different at the beginning of the year because of that. It takes them awhile to learn to use their imagination; to get comfortable with logs and leaves and rocks and even skulls when we find them.
“It’s fun to see the development; to watch how they learn to love it.”
And some fun anecdotal stories are resulting.
Larimore recalls a speech therapist visiting the school, hearing an unfamiliar sound, and being informed by one of the preschoolers that it was a woodpecker.
Then there is a story of one of the 4 year olds visiting the Dow Gardens butterfly house with a group of third graders ...third graders who could not name all the parts of a butterfly. But she quickly and confidently did.
The nature-based preschool concept grew out of the 2005  book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv. When  Larimore and other Chippewa staff heard him speak, they got fired up to join the then-small nature preschool bandwagon.
As for her book, its chapters cover the need for environmental education,  getting a nature preschool started, administrative requirements, programming, and perfecting the programs.
And a healthy appendix section lists programming resources, recommended  children’s books, job descriptions for teachers, and research resources.
“It is generally based on what we did, the steps we took. The one thing I stress is to get started on the licensing as early as possible because it takes so much time; paperwork and inspections.
“I think the information in it will stand the test of time. What is does not have is research about the long-term impact on children because it is too soon. There are not enough of us yet. But in the book I do advise we need to consider this in the chapter titled ‘The Next Step.’”
The cover shows a young boy holding a frog, and was taken by his mother at the Chippewa Nature Preschool. Inside are numerous color photos taken at Chippewa as well as visits to four other nature preschools.
“It took me more than a year and a half to write,” says Larimore. “I got the biggest chunks done at the family cabin in Illinois -- away from television and the telephone.” Once done, other staff members at Chippewa, area educators, an employee at another nature preschool “and my parents too” gave it a critical read.
Larimore hopes the book might also appeal to early childhood educators, libraries, and biologists.
“I think from what I have seen, this is one of the most powerful programs we offer at Chippewa due to the length of time they are with us... These children are here every week for nine months of the year.”
For more information about the Chippewa Nature Preschool, log on to

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