Seated on the wooden floor of a tidy but bare-bones hut, a handful of four-year-old girls ponder what they might observe in the sky.
“A bird!” one tot offers. “Yes, what else?” prods Reesa Vermeulen, an early childhood educator at St. Margaret’s School.
An eagle. A bald eagle. A hawk. After running through an avian menagerie, the kids make it to “clouds!” Vermeulen knew they’d get there sooner or later.
Dressed in rain gear, the girls tromp through the woods to a mossy rock bluff overlooking Blenkinsop Valley farms, and use crayons to draw what they see in nature.
For this group, exploring around trees and mud is another day in junior kindergarten, but the girls are helping pioneer a new experiment in early childhood learning – the integration of nature play with science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM education.
Having four-year-olds tackle science might seem ambitious, but the educators say the program is about encouraging the students to ask questions about the world around them and allowing their natural curiosity to guide the curriculum.
“We train them to ask questions. It’s a learned skill,” said Susan Middlemiss, early learning centre co-ordinator at St. Margaret’s.
“They learn to ask questions, to compare. They look at a tree and say ‘is that a deciduous or an evergreen?’ At four years old, they can do that. One student told their mom they had more deciduous than evergreens at their home. It’s so impressive.”
Vermeulen might have a lesson plan to guide the day, but that can often be abandoned in the wake of a child’s question or an interesting looking bug.
One day the class examined a metal hinge after a child asked how the door is attached to the wall at the nature education hut.
“When a child notices a little red spider or something, we all get on the ground. Getting the perspective of a child is a way to see new things out of the same old stuff,” Vermeulen said. “You see it new because children are seeing it for the first time.”
Housed on 22 acres of woodlands in Saanich, St. Margaret’s was the first school in Greater Victoria to adopt a nature Kindergarten program, and is likely the first in Canada to integrate STEM principles. It officially became a STEM school in 2013.
To mix science and nature, this latest cohort of four-year-olds dove, figuratively, into water: how it cycles between the atmosphere, ocean and land, and how phase changes work between freezing and evaporation.
The students even experimented with rain gauges, had “evaporation races,” and produced a book on what they learned about water.
“We talked about living on an island, and talked about the ocean and what lives in the ocean and compared that to what lives on land. And salt versus fresh water. We talked about rain and evaporation,” Middlemiss said.
“The students could see evaporation off the (school) roof and understood it was vapour into the air. We can have them understand the water cycle, but do it in a fun way.”
After the girls finish using cardboard tube binoculars to spy things in nature to draw, they explore around the rock bluff, confident and fearless walking on a slippery uneven surface.
Two hours of their day is spent outside in structured and unstructured exploration and play. The educators upload lesson plans online for parents to continue experiments-disguised-as-play at home.
“The main thing is the girls get comfortable with nature,” Middlemiss said. “They see how things are different in the summer, then in the fall the leaves fall and mushrooms grow. It’s an opportunity to be in nature and to get an appreciation of it.”