As an educator at the South Carolina Botanical Garden, I teach classes for people of ages, and on many different topics. My favorite group, by far, is Garden Sprouts, this program is directed at children aged 3-5 with a caregiver, and focuses in on exploring the natural world. In general, the structure is threefold. First, we read a book or explore something inside on the rug this introduces the theme of the day. Second, we take a walk in the Garden, or engage in an activity outside, also related to the theme. Finally, a craft/art project to have something to take home and share. I generally run this program from March to May and September to November,
I have been running this program for many years now and find the challenge of adapting activities to this age group both intriguing and rewarding. I thought it might be useful to share today’s program and what worked, what didn’t, and how the program developed in unexpected ways. Today was the first beautiful spring day we have had in a while so I wanted to do the bulk of the program outside. My theme was using our eyes to look for animals and animal signs in nature (improving our observations skills).
We generally begin with a book on the rug. This time we sat outside on the lawn to enjoy the sunshine. Immediately this decision had strong repercussions. One of the shy children (who had just begun to warm up to me over the course of 4 meetings) was completely thrown by the change, and the rapport and comfort we had established was destroyed. One of the rambunctious children had much more space to run around and catching his attention was very, very difficult. The third child took it more in stride. I don’t think I will try this strategy again.
I had casts of animal paws and scat to talk about signs of animals that we might find, if we couldn’t see the animals. They were interested in holding the casts, but I was not able to hold their attention enough to be coherent! If I were to redo this with a book, I might use Track that Scat by Lisa Morlock (ages 4-7) or Tracks Count: A Guide to Counting Animal Prints (The Little Naturalist Series) by Steve Engel (Author), Alexander Petersen (Illustrator), (Preschool – K). Do you have any suggestions of good books for this age group and topic?
The second part of the program was a walk to look for animals (stuffed fox, possum, raccoon, skunk and groundhog) and animal tracks, stamps of all four feet of deer, coyote, beaver and raccoon made with Acorn Naturalist stamps. I tried to hide the animals and the tracks, but not too carefully. We played colder/warmer and it did take a while for them to be successful and find the animal. They were very excited to find them, but this was mostly the end of it, the animals did not really prompt any curiosity or interest in them, beyond each wanting to hold them.
The track prints were much more successful. One child had seen deer prints in a field near his house. One child identified the beaver prints as duck prints, and this led to a discussion of other animals that live near water and have webbed feet, and ultimately to the beaver. As we were discussing the prints, they noticed that the front and back feet were different, which prompted me to put one child’s hands on the front prints and his feet on the back, he picked up the piece of wood in his mouth, completing the portrait of a beaver. When we found the raccoon prints we compared their hand prints to our hand prints and were able to practice counting to 5 and then to 10. I
Generally, I conclude with a craft or art project. If it was a more normal program I might have the children make track prints or make a print of their feet and hands. Instead, we concluded this program by visiting the carrots we had sowed 2 weeks ago and spent time watering them. This was a wonderful activity for such a beautiful day and it seemed perfect to do this rather than return inside for a craft. (For the carrot program we read The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, planted carrots and finger-painted carrots, with varying success).
Like I said, I find this age very rewarding. Things don’t always work out as intended, but their curiosity and joy reminds me to continue to view the word with fresh eyes! And they keep me grounded, I have to always remember that I am never as exciting as a construction truck.