Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Midland's Chippewa Nature Center hosting first-of-its-kind conference

by Janet I. Martineau
Sixty preschool teachers and administrators  from around the nation are camping out at Midland’s Chippewa Nature Center this Wednesday and Thursday.
Preschoolers at Chippewa Nature Center
Not literally -- they are housed at the upscale H Hotel in the city’s downtown.
But  over their two days they will settle in at Chippewa, 400 S. Badour, to hear two keynote speakers, pick and choose from nearly 25 breakout sessions, view a film,  participate in a scavenger hunt, and take a wagon ride to Chippewa’s Homestead Farm for a barbeque in what is billed as the nation’s first Nature-Based Preschool Conference.
“We have teachers and administrators coming from Vermont, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Georgia and Ohio as well as Michigan,” says Rachel A. Larimore, the director of education at Chippewa.
“As best we know there are just 20 to 30 nature-based preschools in the United States at present. We are still new, still developing and growing, and we do not quite fit in at early childhood conferences or at conferences for nature centers. We are a hybrid of the two, and we need to decide how do we define ourselves.”
So, she says, Chippewa Nature Center got the ball rolling and created  what will become an annual conference for nature-based preschools. “We hope it will start the building of a network -- the people attending will meet people they can call when they have questions on how to deal with issues that come up.
“It also will allow us to become more organized, to build an association and begin regular communication with each other.”
And perhaps most important of all, Larimore says, “It will establish the fact we are a profession and have established best practices.”
Chippewa opened its nature-based preschool five years ago, and even constructed a special 5,000-square-foot building to house its students. But the 60 visitors will only briefly visit that facility since it is in use.
Instead, they will meet in the classrooms at the adjacent Visitor Center, where Larimore and her colleagues have scheduled an impressive list of hour-long  breakout sessions. Among them are “Terrible to Terrific Transitions,” “Exploring Puppets,” “Augmenting Your Site for Better Nature Play,” “Ideas for Great Group Excursions,”  “Nature and the Brain,” “Creating Nature Journals With Children,” “Seasonal Activity Ideas” and “Working With Urban Centers.”

Leading the sessions are teachers and administrators not only from Chippewa Nature Center but also from the participating nature centers.

“We have the breakout sessions divided between two styles,” says Larimore. “One is traditional -- one or two presenters do the whole program. And the others are sharing sessions -- a presenter does a short overview and then facilitates a group discussion.”
The movie on tap is “Mother Nature’s Child,” which discusses the need for nature in the lives of children.
And the two keynote speakers are Patti Bailie, the director of Wisconsin’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, on “Best Practices for Nature-based Preschools,” and Jim Gill, a musician and author, on “Music Play for ALL Young Children.” Next year’s conference will take place at Schlitz.
Larimore was instrumental in the creation of Chippewa’s nature preschool, which so far has served more than 200 youngsters. She also authored the 93-page  book “Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool,” published by the National Association of Interpretation.

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