On a mild February afternoon, a dozen snowsuit-clad children in bulky boots and colorful hats perch on logs surrounded by snow outside the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They pass raptor talons and feathered feet and gingerly touch an owl’s wing that their teacher, Liesl Schultz, holds out. She asks whether the wing belongs to a male or a female, telling the kids to look carefully at the color of the feathers. Then she explains that mothers have duller hues to help them blend in with their environment and protect their chicks.
Schultz tells the group that great horned owls breed during Wisconsin’s coldest winter months, and that she’s heard there might be one nesting in the nearby stand of evergreens. After a few practice calls—hoo-h’HOO–hoo-hoo—they trudge to the top of a 60-foot observation tower just before dusk. The budding nature lovers call out in a cacophony of hoots and hollers, their shouts echoing through the sky. Alexander Fudderich, a particularly gifted hooter, takes his best shot, and is rewarded when a great horned owl hoots back. The children’s eyes open wide in wonder.
Named for the big beer company that used to pasture its ale-carting horses on the property, the 185-acre center is home to Audubon’s only nature preschool, complete with an afterschool program. In the early 1960s Dory Vallier, the brewery founder’s granddaughter, proposed to the Schlitz Foundation that the property be converted to a nature center. The board turned her down. But she persisted, and in 1971 she finally won them over.
Former center director Buffy Cheek showed a similar tenacity, and the Schlitz Audubon board approved her proposal for a nature preschool three decades later. She recruited Patti Bailie as director, and the school opened its doors in 2003. Now 144 children who attend grow intellectually and spiritually by hik ing and playing outdoors throughout the year. Bailie, a 20-year veteran of early childhood and environmental education, says, “There’s such a connection between spending time in the natural world and the developing brain.”
Recent research bears her out, though it’s an understudied field. Noticing differences between objects, like seeds and burrs, helps wire the brain, nurturing initial math and pre-reading skills that develop from the ages of one through four. “They learn observation skills after just a few months,” says Bailie. “Parents will tell me, ‘I can’t believe what my child sees now.’ ” Studies also show that just 20 minutes spent outdoors improves concentration in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as much as, if not more than, medication. That’s in addition to the physical benefits of exercise and exposure to vitamin D (which helps build strong bones).
At least four other nature preschools nationwide have been modeled on Schlitz’s program. But children don’t have to attend one of these remarkable schools to benefit from nature education. Schlitz’s educators teamed up with Braininsights, a company that creates materials incorporating brain development concepts into real-life experiences, to make a pocket-sized packet of laminated cards chock-full of fun outdoor activities that parents can do with their children. One of them shows how outlining a shadow in chalk and coloring it in leads to coordination between a child’s brain and muscles. (The book is available at braininsightsonline.com.)
Meanwhile, Sesame Street, the beloved 42-year-old TV program, consulted with Bailie after deciding to devote its last three seasons to nature and science. “Children have that sense of awe and wonder, and once you establish appreciation, then it’s a lot easier for the child to want to then take care of the world around them,” says Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Street Workshop’s vice president for education and research. “Patti actually brought [us] these wonderful experiences of what they’re doing at the nature center.” The shows—some of which Schlitz students previewed before they aired—taught concepts like habitat and migration. Big Bird considered flying to a warmer climate for the winter, and Elmo and Abby helped Bert find the blue bar pigeon, the last one on his life list.
At Schlitz, preschoolers use all of their senses when mucking around in forests, ponds, and prairies. In winter they tap maple trees for sap, discovering how it moves up and down a tree and tasting the sweet liquid. When ice begins to form on Lake Michigan’s shores, the waves and wind break it into pieces. Those chunks form an ice shelf laced with a labyrinth of tunnels. Waves force water through the frozen surface and create ice volcanoes, or “ice-canoes,” on the lake. The result is a seasonal landscape that allows children to play on the water—close to shore—when the temperature plunges below freezing.
In the fall and spring they watch caterpillars turn into butterflies and catch and release tadpoles. To master complex ideas, they play games. For instance, to illustrate why leaves change colors in autumn, each child holds a colored felt leaf. Teachers grasp a green blanket and lift it into the air so that the kids can run underneath, showing that when the chlorophyll is gone, the leaves’ true colors reveal themselves. “We use the language—‘metamorphosis,’ ‘chlorophyll’—and they pick it right up because it’s meaningful,” says Bailie. “And they’re completely capable of understanding what those words mean.”
Even before the school opened there was a waiting list for the following year; for the next class, the list is 30 students long. “The nature preschool is really important because it’s about planting the seeds to grow tomorrow’s conservationists,” says center director Nathan Smallwood, whose four-year-old son, Wolf, attends the preschool. When Smallwood first took the helm last year, his son was tearing up everything in sight. After about a week in the school, the two went on a walk on the grounds and Wolf ran ahead. Smallwood was shocked when his son turned around and said, “Papa, be careful not to step on the wildflowers.”
“It stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I have the advantage of seeing the experiences of this as not just a director but as a parent.”