Shelley Brown P ’32 ’33
“A connection feels like the love is so big that it comes out of your heart and connects with someone else’s heart.” - Esha, age 5
The quality of learning is strongly determined by the quality of relationships. Children benefit from the support of a caring adult who is willing to enter into a relationship that is based on respect, love, and trust. These conditions lay the foundation for the emotional state most conducive for the learning brain. Connections with the natural world engage children’s senses and capture their imaginations in ways that nurture and support the development of a young child’s curiosity. In fact, a research study from 2019 states that, “Hundreds of studies now bear on this question do experiences with nature prompt learning, and converging evidence strongly suggests that experiences within nature boost academic learning, personal development, and environmental stewardship” (Front. Psychol., 19 February 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305). These connections with nature and caring adults are essential for the emotional, physical, and intellectual health of children and are a part of the hallmark programming that we do each day in the early childhood classrooms at Wellington.
If you look closely in some of the early childhood classrooms, you might find an additional “student” or two in the space: a few turtles, a small school of fish, and a hedgehog. Yes, Petunia the Hedgehog lives in Pete Kaser '96 P ’27 ’29 and Alyson Vigneron’s P ’33 classroom, and the prekindergarten students care for the hedgehog each day. Ensuring that Petunia has enough to eat, has a clean cage, and has a respectful rest time are important for the class pet, but these responsibilities are also a way to model and teach empathy toward another living being. The preschoolers see the direct impact of how their behavior and actions affect others. The relationship with the class pet spurs many conversations of kindness and responsibility; often these conversations move beyond the pet and into other real world situations where young children learn how to be empathetic toward a friend who is learning something new or care for a friend who is feeling sad. We are pretty certain that Petunia enjoys her time with the prekindergarten students too!
As many of you know from being a parent to a young child, three-year-old children are full of questions and more questions! Our Little Jags observed their natural surroundings and began to ask many questions about the squirrels getting ready for the winter. With the help of their trusted teachers and access to our Abbott Family Learning Center, the students researched what squirrels ate and provided some mid-day snacks for the squirrels in our green spaces around campus. Based on the research and first-hand observations, the Little Jags created squirrels and nests out of clay and natural materials and took their learning beyond the classroom to a local metropark to hike and explore in the woods. One simple question about a small, brown animal with a bushy tail led to a group of students learning how their efforts affected the natural life around them. They began to see the connection of litter and how that might harm a squirrel’s home. The relationship formed with wildlife right outside our school windows helped our youngest learners begin to understand the importance of preserving trees and making sustainable choices so wildlife has access to spaces to call home.
Our kindergarten students began sharing their passion projects with their peers, and many of their self-declared student passions involved animals and discovering more about their natural habitats. The kindergarten teaching teams get very creative as they weave vocabulary lessons, social studies units, and real-world math problems into the passions. Dr. Terwin, head of school and a marine biologist, helped children get up close and personal with a shark for a passion project, right here in our school! Although the shark (role played by head of upper school, Rishi Raganathan P ’27 ’30) was a costume, the students were able to learn the correct names of the shark’s anatomy and how a shark protects itself in the water using its colors to camouflage. More importantly, the kindergarteners learned how a shark is connected to the food chain, which in turn is connected to our ecosystem. One of the greatest outcomes of learning is when a classroom of five and six-year-olds not only grasp the scientific name of a shark (selachimorpha) but also learn to appreciate the beauty of an animal that can be viewed as scary. Everything we do, as humans, affects the world we live in, and helping children understand that we have the power to destroy or preserve habitats helps our children learn to care for and respect our world.
These authentic and meaningful connections with nature encourage our students to zoom out from their everyday experiences at Wellington and help us pose bigger questions such as, “How do our actions affect the community around us? Our state? Our country? Our world?” Our youngest students have some pretty great answers. Caring for a class pet brings increased sensitivity and awareness of the feelings and needs of others, and this translates to children showing compassion to other living beings. Children understand what might happen if our grassy, green spaces get too messy for the squirrels which, in turn, helps a three-year-old understand what might happen to animals in nature if litter is present. Our kindergarteners have a better appreciation of marine life, and when we know more we can be advocates for animals and their natural habitats.
One of the best ways for children to learn about the environment is to experience it - first hand with peers and adults whom they know and trust. By thoughtfully integrating our class pets, student-driven projects, and kindergarten passions we consciously help children build connections with each other and with their world.