By Sarah Candelaria of Nature Niños
As COVID-19 has spread a sense of uncertainty in our communities throughout New Mexico, Nature Niños has taken a stance to ensure that resources are available to support a system for families and community members to rally together as a “nature village.” Together, we are raising our ninos up to overcome current difficulties and challenges. Together, we are providing children with a sense of continuity and normality in a world that is ever-changing.
Nature Niños, an initiative of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF), offers a variety of programming that encourages the use of nature as a source of stability, a steadfast resource that never changes, a pillar of strength that we can lean on to get through these trying times. By providing resources to our families and teachers, we are raising their confidence to support local children and youth with experiences and adventures in nature.
FAMILY COMES FIRST
Family always comes first! The Nurturing Your Young Child with Nature series, led by NMWF Early Childhood Coordinator, Sally Anderson and in partnership with the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division, is designed for families with young children who are just learning how to explore nature and the outdoors together, either because they did not often experience the outdoors as children themselves, or because they did spend their childhood outdoors and want their own ninos to have a childhood rooted in the awe and wonder of the natural world. The program is also ideal for parents who embrace the idea of slowing down childhood, by minimizing screen time and maximizing connection, all while enjoying the simple pleasures of being a child. Childhood should be about predictable routines and rituals, which can include enjoying books and stories together; taking the time to drop into deep, nurturing play; picnics in the park; walks in the neighborhood; worm hunting and puddle splashing. Young children should get a consistent dose of “Vitamin N’--and most importantly, have a joyful and playful connection to both nature and the adults who care for them on a daily basis.
After families feel comfortable exploring their own backyards and neighborhood parks, they can take the plunge into exploring the beyond! Our team member, Kristina Roybal has heard from families who want to go on hiking adventures, but they don’t know where to start. So each Friday, Nature Niños distributes hiking information especially for our families with young children. We do all the research, so busy parents don’t have to, and detail all the in’s and out’s of some of the most family-friendly hikes in New Mexico. We let families know the bathroom situation, the ability to take a stroller or not, and things like how much shade is available for the many breaks needed for little legs. Each Take A Hike Friday resource also includes fun scavenger hunt items to find while hiking, and fun facts about the landscape, watersheds and wildlife in the area.
At Nature Niños, we are not afraid to venture outside the box a little, so we are offering resources during COVID specifically for parents who are interested in homeschooling rather than returning in-person to school or virtual classes. While respecting all schooling decisions, we are here to guide families who do have an interest in homeschooling by highlighting the fact that math, history, science, and English lessons can be done outside in the fresh air! In addition, we are expecting a Fall 2020 launch of our Nature Ninos Bosque Explorers Conservation School, a supplemental school experience for homeschooled & public school students that is 100% outdoors!
Knowing that educators are also valuable members of our village, we are offering a training course that is sure to inspire! Our Nature-based Early Childhood Training & Certification Program, designed for professionals working with young children (in NM and beyond), will launch in September. This year-long course, led by Sally Anderson and co-facilitated by Dr. Yu of UNM, with contributions from Dr. Ruth Wilson, NMAEYC, Explora, and National Wildlife Federation ECHO team, will assist professionals in learning how to use Nature as a 3rd Teacher. Outdoor-learning increases health, creativity, problem-solving, and social-emotional growth in young children, which is one of the many reasons why there has been a steady increase in Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens in the US over the last 10 years. This training program, which entails one Zoom lesson module per month for 12 months, along with an individual, supported “Harvest Project”, will equip early childhood professionals with the tools and pedagogy that will allow them to “bring nature in” and “get children out”, to both the nearby, and beyond. There will be a certification option, as well as an opportunity to take most of the modules independently. An additional 6-month training is already being designed for those who wish to incorporate a “Forest Fridays” component into their existing program, or start their own Forest Kindergarten
NATURE NINOS EXPERIENCES
When COVID-19 hit, it became evident that we had to pause in-class experiences for New Mexico’s youth, and so we quickly adapted to the times. Starting in March, Nature Ninos began offering a weekly Backyard Nature Series via Zoom that engaged youth from K-8 with nature in their backyard. With the help of some amazing community partners - adding to our “village” - we were able to share various topics with children, like pollinators, reptiles and insects, phases of the moon, plant identification and nature journaling. When the Backyard Nature Series wrapped up, we quickly launched The World is Our Classroom, where we spend time exploring nature beyond backyards. Each lesson ends with a variety of activities that we encourage the kids to get outdoors and try, for example; taking a nature walk to identify pollinators, creating a cloud in a jar, identifying animal adaptations and making their own nature journal to document their findings.
Another offering is our Nature Stories & Signs with Miss Sally. Sally worked for decades as a Teacher of the Deaf, and here she connects her passion for nature with American Sign Language, teaching a few basic signs each week in line with the weekly story.
What’s next for Nature Niños? We hope to partner with our Pre-K-12 schools in helping public school educators to get “todos los niños” outdoors to learn, explore, and wonder together, regularly. We are not sure yet how this will look, but we know it is a task we are able to undertake. We will also be formalizing our relationship with SOL Forest School, based in the forested mountains east of Albuquerque, to serve as a model program for early educators wanting to learn about Nature & Place-based education, and as a model for potential expansion into the greater Albuquerque area. In addition, we are examining our existing programs for barriers to equitability and inclusion, aiming to raise up the voices within our community to allow for increased access to nature for all. One way we will do this is to introduce a monthly “Friendly Forest” component that will be designed for children who have developmental disabilities and/or who are differently-abled. We are hoping to win funding and/or start a scholarship to allow for a greater number of families, ninos, and educators to access all that we offer (and hope to offer).
Working as a village, we know that the open, endless southwestern sky is the only limit, and that anything is possible.