Mass Audubon Nature Preschools
With five licensed nature preschools, Mass Audubon serves as a leader in New England in the nature-based early learning movement, providing quality educational programming at Mass Audubon sites and in partnership with local schools and community organizations. Kris Scopinich, Mass Audubon's Director of Education, shared the organization's committment to building capacity for early childhood programming both internally and through collaborations with traditional preschools and child care facilities statewide.
Tell us more about Mass Audubon's overall commitment and capacity-building with regards to early childhood EE, including nature preschools.
Designing and offering programs that connect young children to nature is at the heart of everything we do and have been doing for 120+ years at Mass Audubon. With almost half a million annual visitors of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds, we are the largest statewide provider of environmental education in New England. We serve over 235,000 individuals, mostly families with young children, in education programs at Mass Audubon sanctuaries and in communities, through partnerships with schools and local organizations.
Through our licensed nature-based preschool programs, we serve over 290 children, 15% of which come from underserved communities. Additionally, outside of our nature preschool programs, we reach 26,000 preschoolers at our wildlife sanctuaries, museums, nature centers, and at early childhood facilities statewide. We have always been committed to early childhood nature programming and continue to be, turning our attention mindfully and strategically to what’s next. Currently, we are developing tools that will share our skills, expertise, and resources with more traditional preschool and child care facilities. By offering intensive professional development opportunities, ongoing coaching and curriculum consultation, family programs, and schoolyard assessment, we hope to build these sites’ capacities for incorporating nature play and nature-based learning into their curricula.
As an advocacy organization, we strive to do what’s best for all children, which is why we continue to develop and implement new ways to increase access to early childhood environmental education in and outside of our nature preschool programs.
Mass Audubon has set a goal to be a leader in the nature preschool movement. Can you tell us how you plan to do that?
In our Education Master Plan, we set a goal of opening two additional preschools by 2020. Presently, we have five licensed nature preschools, one nature preschool with a provisional license, and a site where we are developing a business plan for another preschool. We are committed to exploring the opportunity of either opening a licensed nature preschool at Mass Audubon sites that currently offer early childhood nature programming and have the necessary infrastructure. For sites that don’t have the resources to offer long-term early childhood programming, we will focus our efforts on building capacity of nearby child care facilities and traditional preschools through educator professional development and ongoing support.
What do each of your nature preschools have in common and what makes each different?
Every community-based nature center and preschool is part of its own community network. We believe each preschool knows best how to design a program that meets the needs of the families and children within the communities they serve. All sites consider both their natural and built landscapes, which vary greatly from preschool to preschool. We feel strongly that this community-based model is critical to the success of each of our schools. Still, all of our preschools are Mass Audubon preschools, so there are a number of ways they are very similar.
We share the same mission, vision, and values. All staff attend an annual meeting to discuss strategic priorities and share how everyone plays an important role in meeting organizational priorities. By showcasing our statewide early childhood efforts, this gathering helps all of our educators feel part of much larger commitment to young children and their healthy development.
Our preschool staff values nature-based emergent curriculum and extended time spent learning and playing outside. We honor children as creative and competent learners, share a commitment to natural materials and healthy environments (indoors and outdoors), and work to build deep and meaningful relationships between children, families, teachers, and nature. Preschool directors collaborate regularly to discuss best practices, problem solve, reflect on our practice, and inspire each other to be our best for our communities and our state. We all support one another, including Mass Audubon staff outside of our preschool programs.
Our nature programming continues well past early childhood. We encourage families and children to remain a part of our learning community through summer camps, family, and youth programs.
At Mass Audubon, we are growing the next generation of nature heroes and environmental leaders.