Natural Wonders: A guide to early childhood for environmental educators

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Environmental education organizations and other informal education venues have recently recognized the need to provide specialized programming for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Likewise, record numbers of parents, daycare providers and early childhood educators have begun seeking out nature centers, zoos and museums as places to help their not-yet school-aged children learn, grow and develop an appreciation of and love for nature. On the surface, it's a match made in heaven. However, unlike teachers in the formal school system who specialize in certain age groups, informal educators have to be ready and able to provide dynamic, interesting, relevant and appropriate programs for all ages—from preschool to senior citizens—often at a moment's notice. While this kind of versatility is necessary, it can lead to one-size-fits-all programming that leaves preschoolers behind. But the more we learn about the brain and how experience affects growth and development, the more we see the need to specialize our approach to educating young children. Thanks to educators and researchers like Rousseau, Piaget, Froebel and Montessori, we've known for decades that children are not just smaller versions of adults, nor are preschoolers smaller versions of school-aged children. From years of research and practice, we know that very young children—infants, toddlers and preschoolers—are fundamentally different than older children and need to be taught in fundamentally different ways. Since the late 1980s, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has led the way in defining what those ways are. This information has been available to early childhood educators for years, but has not been translated for use in environmental educational settings—until now. This guide was written especially for naturalists and environmental educators interested in learning more about how and why young children think and act and how they can use this information to design developmentally appropriate programs and activities. However, it is not intended to be a recipe book. You won't find a prescribed method for teaching about maple syruping or pond study. Although we do provide guidelines on what makes a program or activity developmentally appropriate, we recognize that everyone's situation is different and allow for as much flexibility as possible. How to use this guide The sections of this guide become progressively more practical and specific—from understanding the basics of how young children think, to evaluating the developmental appropriateness of programs, and everything in between. Each section contains specific topics that explain in greater detail the elements of child development and what it means to facilitate young children's learning. At the end of each topic, a chart is provided detailing information and examples of most appropriate, somewhat appropriate or least appropriate practices associated with those topics. We have provided this chart as a gauge educators can use to identify where their teaching methods currently are on the developmentally appropriate continuum and what they can change about their methods to make them more developmentally appropriate. No one is developmentally appropriate 100 percent of the time. But if you challenge yourself to keep progressing along the continuum, you'll find it becomes easier and more rewarding for you and the children. Practicing developmentally appropriate education is a constant and evolving process. Even veteran early childhood educators must evaluate their practices on a regular basis and adapt them to changing situations and children. The best way to evaluate your programs for developmental appropriateness is by being an active learner yourself: experiment, explore, seek questions and answers, test theories and invent new ways of approaching learning. And don't forget to have fun!

Minnesota Early Childhood Environmental Education Consortium with funding from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Ass
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Early Childhood
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