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Kids take muddy study

Preschool uses the outdoors as its classroom

Posted: July 9, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: July 9, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Aden Joyner, 3, shares a moment with Ben, a tortoise, at A Little Patch of Earth preschool in Newhall on Thursday.

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Sally Swiatek aimed a garden hose at the dirt mound underneath her preschoolers’ feet.

“What do you think will happen?” Swiatek said.

“It will disappear!” said Kai Barrett, 3.

Swiatek pulled the trigger and let water sprinkle over the pile of dirt, about as tall as a toddler and twice as wide. The dirt turned from cocoa powder to fudgy mud.

“I’m stuck on mud!” declared Carissa King, 2, who was celebrating International Mud Day with the rest of her class.

Kids at A Little Patch of Earth, a Newhall preschool founded and supervised by Swiatek, learn in a different way than most local preschoolers: Swiatek uses nature to teach every day.

“The whole premise is everything a child learns indoors they can also learn outdoors,” she said. “This is how we get connected to our Earth.”

A Little Patch of Earth’s educational concept is a unique blend of philosophies that focus on nature, play and child-centered learning.

It’s the first Santa Clarita Valley school to be part of the Outdoor Classroom Project, a training program from the Child Educational Center in La Canada that integrates education with the natural, living world.

Swiatek hopes to become an Outdoor Classroom demonstration site, bringing nature-centered learning to schools in the community.

The 4-week-old preschool has 18 students, ages 2 to 5, and four teachers, two of whom are credentialed in the Outdoor Classroom Project.

Nearly two acres of play yard, designed and built by Swiatek, are peppered with places to learn and play: a classic red barn, a playhouse, a stand-alone open “living room” with dress-up clothes, a sensory garden and a rock-lined river filled with hose water.

“If you create a very aesthetically pleasing learning environment, the child feels valued,” Swiatek said.

Kids spend more than two hours outside each day and bring three changes of clothes because they are supposed to get dirty at A Little Patch of Earth, she said.

Each structure and station in the outdoor yard stimulates physical, literary, oral and cognitive development, Swiatek said. For example, kids play in the rock-lined river and turn on a hose to produce water.

“We duplicate a more complex play yard in the outdoors by creating a faux river so they could take measured physical risks,” she said.

Children take these “measured risks” by climbing on the boulders that line the river and damming up the stream of water. They feel more confident in the strength of their bodies, she said.

“We want our environment to be safe as necessary but not safe as possible,” she said.

Through this kind of play, children learn to become capable and competent people and they gain a sense of independence that they don’t associate with adults, Swiatek said.

“To see them using their environment the way it’s intended is the most fulfilling thing in the world,” she added.

As other kids wandered away from the sloppy mud mound, Silas Firnwalt, 3, continued diligently with his play. “I’m making a big pancake!” the youngster said, slapping a mud cake baking on the wood table. “It’s yucky! My hands are dirty!” he said, clearly thrilled.

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