Using Nature To Nurture Social-Emotional Skills

Nov 29, 2019

Three kids crunch the leaves under their feet while helping a fourth kid get a foothold to climb a short tree on the edge of a fenced-in yard.

On the other side of the yard, a sensory wall is adorned with chimes and bells. But the most popular attraction has got to be the mud kitchen. It’s actually just a few wood pallets made to look live a stove, but it’s much more to the 4 and 5-year-olds here.

“What do you like to do in the kitchen?” one of the staff members asks a little girl holding a bundle of sticks and pine cones. “Play with mud.” “And what do you make?” “Christmas food!” she says before walking off to go make herself a fort.

They’re having fun and exploring, yes, but it’s also an accredited nature-based kindergarten readiness program.

This is the Little Adventurers. It’s run by Adventure Works in DeKalb. They’re an outdoor behavioral healthcare organization, so most of the staff are counselors who take clients when they’re not helping with the mud kitchen.

Patrick McMillion is the clinical director at Adventure Works.

“Our community has different needs,” he said. “And so I think the parents that initially found us were looking for something different and so I'm glad we were able to provide that.”

The kids play in the muddy kitchen
Credit Peter Medlin

It’s getting colder and colder outside, and they’re near the end of the pilot run of Little Adventurers.

Since their classroom is 100% outdoors, except on extremely hot or cold days, they’ve also let the seasons guide their activity plans.

“Oftentimes the kids will kind of direct what happens anyway,” said McMillion. “So like on the day that it snowed, [we] had to change a little bit of what was gonna happen for the curriculum, but then it turned into one of their funnest days because the kids just got to play in the snow.”

Little Adventurers is accredited by the Association for Experiential Education.

This week’s activities are Thanksgiving and harvest-themed. Today kids are rolling corn cobs through paint and decorating them.

Caroline Dress helps facilitate Little Adventurers, and she’s also a clinical therapist.

“That really helps the kids also develop dexterity and use their motor skills,” she said. “And we're also going to talk a lot about friendship. Because I think it's important for kids to know based on the emotional and social development goals we have for them.”

A report from the Illinois State Board of Education said only about a quarter of students enter kindergarten developmentally ready.

Social-emotional development is Little Adventurers’ biggest focus, but that doesn’t mean they don’t tackle academic topics associated with readiness.

Credit Peter Medlin

They read and discuss books about animals or nature. Dress said they just read “The Lorax,” which also helped lead to a conversation on environmental awareness and friendliness.

“It's important, but difficult to know how much to tell them about animals needing support not to go extinct and that kind of thing," said Dress, "and so I think just [we’re] planting the seeds of loving nature and loving animals and wanting to be outside.” 

They’ve also used mud kitchen games to compare and contrast or talk about water displacement.

Jeanette Kay is another Little Adventurers facilitator.

“Even though they're just playing," she said, "they don't really realize that we're asking them to do math skills.”

Patrick McMillion said they got the land a few years ago. They then received a grant to clean up the property, in order to start building it out for the new program.

“I think, even though the space is kind of small, the kids have really made it their own," he said. "So even though we're looking at these different structures here, you can see in their eyes that it's different. It's a different world when they're out here.”

McMillion said the people behind Little Adventurers had thought about starting an early childhood education program for some time. It was at a conference where he really started to see the lane they could fill.

“One of the kindergarten teachers reported that many kids didn't even know how to cut with scissors, or when she had asked if any of them had climbed a tree or been in mud before how many of them had really said no,” said McMillion. “And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that's got to change.’”

And so the program was born. 

The next group of Little Adventurers will get to play in the muddy kitchen when the next session begins this spring.