Here’s mud in your class: A call for more nature time

Good preschool teachers don’t hesitate to get their hands dirty.

And that’s just what they did during a two-day conference on early childhood education and outdoor learning at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Amid workshops on how to integrate natural objects into lesson plans and using a Japanese marbling art project to teach children about the Shehechiyanu blessing, teachers engaged in the old-fashioned pastime of playing in the mud.

Making cob out of mud, clay and straw photos/courtesy jcf

“We need to get into the spirit of the learning that we are hoping to share with our students,” said Ariela Ronay-Jinich, director of youth and family programs at Berkeley’s Urban Adamah, who taught a workshop on building with cob, a mixture of mud and straw, at the conference. Participants worked together to mix the cob, then formed bowls, sculptures and even a challah out of the earth. “We don’t need more PowerPoint,” she said.

The “Learning Environments From the Inside Out” conference, sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, brought together 170 Jewish preschool teachers and directors from the Bay Area and across the country to learn techniques for integrating outdoor learning into early childhood education as well as creating environments that encourage child-led exploration inside the classroom.

“We used to talk about the teacher being the sage on the stage; now the teacher is the guide on the side,” said Janet Harris, director of the federation’s early childhood education initiative. “The teachers prepare fertile grounds for [children] to learn. They provide inspiration, provocations, stories and things that inspire children to grow.”

Learning Japanese “floating ink” art form

Cob building, for instance, is an open-ended activity that encourages children to interact with the natural world while using their imaginations. At Urban Adamah, an urban farm in Berkeley that hosts a summer camp and Jewish education programs for families, Ronay-Jinich has used cob in lessons on building a sukkah.

This type of inquiry-based education is now considered a “best practice” in early childhood education, according to Harris. Furthermore, at a time when screens increasingly demand children’s attention, parents are more attuned than ever to the need for their children to interact with the natural world, according to Rabbi Meir Muller, the principal of the Cutler Jewish Day School in Columbia, South Carolina, who gave the conference’s keynote address.

“In the [public school] district where I live, recess is only 12 minutes long,” said Muller, who holds a doctorate in early childhood education. “I think that society is at a point now where children are getting less and less outdoor experiences in their lives,” he said, adding that educators need to pay attention.

For Jewish educators, the opportunity is not only to encourage free play, but also to use outdoor learning as a way to impart Jewish lessons, according to Muller.

“How are we teaching Jewish values through the outdoors?” said Muller, citing lessons that connect stewardship of the earth to the value of tikkun olam. “I think many Jewish programs are being more intentional.”

The experiential conference was inspiring to both facilitators and participants, Harris said. “It was like a spiritual revival.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.