The kids at the Dodge Nature Center Preschool are mini owl experts. They count owls and draw pictures of owls. They had an "owl party" with a live owl in attendance. For the past two weeks, most of their curriculum has centered around owls -- all because they spotted one while playing outside.
Playing outside every day is a key part of Dodge's philosophy, one educators want to inspire more early education programs to add to their lesson plans. They hope to fuel a movement to get kids playing outside more often and particularly to integrate classroom experiences, Marlais Brand, a teacher at Dodge, said.
One of the most prominent ways Dodge is "fueling the movement" is by attempting to add a kindergarten class next year in response to requests from parents. The kindergarten would expand on work already being done in the preschool program -- work Dodge educators and parents alike think works better for kids than a traditional curriculum.
The idea is to rethink early education altogether, to provide kids with a better preparedness for life, a preparedness educators and parents at Dodge say kids may not necessarily receive under a traditional curriculum.
Currently, many early education programs -- from preschools to grade schools -- push for preparedness by getting kids ready for mandatory testing, Brand said. "That's not necessarily developmentally appropriate."
"The reality is that kids aren't going out as much as they should," Brand said.
"Children learn in very concrete ways, by handling things, by experiences," said Marty Watson, director of the school. Dodge's curriculum provides kids with experiences in the natural world that they bring back to the classroom and learn from, she said.
Kids need to learn to take risks and think creatively by having real experiences and doing things, rather than having facts drilled into their heads and learning abstractly.
Brand said she thinks educators want kids to go outside and play more, and she hopes to gain support for more educators bringing play into their curriculum.
Ashley Lostetter, whose daughter, Harper, attends Dodge's preschool, said they chose Dodge because of the integrated curriculum. The Lostetters were otherwise planning on home schooling if they hadn't found a school to fit their needs.
"We came out to look at [Dodge] and fell in love with it," she said. So much so that the Lostetters plan to enroll their middle child, who turns 3 in April.
Lostetter has already enrolled Harper for Dodge's kindergarten program, although the school isn't certain it will have the 12 students it needs to start the program.
If the kindergarten doesn't become a reality, the Lostetters said they will home-school Harper.
"Kids don't get enough regular play [in school]," Lostetter said. Harper doesn't like to just sit and learn, and at Dodge, she gets to be outside every day, she said. Dodge's curriculum has prepared her to think outside the box and approach things differently, a lesson plan Lostetter said gives kids at a definite advantage upon entering grade school.
Recently, Watson had a conversation with a little boy in the preschool who was beginning to grasp the building blocks of mathematics and language, something that is taught using concrete methods at Dodge.
He was talking about how many objects he had and figuring it out with his fingers, she said. "We have some kids reading at 3 or 4, because they're starting to understand these patterns," she said.
By changing curriculums to include more experiences like play, kids can build on their autonomy, creative thinking skills and physical agility, Brand said. "All of these things end up making for a more confident and prepared kid."
Ashley Bray is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.