Member Kudos: Nature Begindergarten, Bentley Community Schools

2018 Education Excellence Award Recipient

DashBoard, Feb. 28, 2018

The 25 recipients of the 2018 MASB/SET SEG Foundation Education Excellence Awards are some of the greatest examples of unique and innovative public school programs in the state of Michigan. Over the next few months, MASB will share the details of each program from their applications, presented in alphabetical order by district. This week we highlight the Nature Begindergarten at Barhitte Elementary in Bentley Community Schools.

Bentley Begindergarten kids playing outside

History/Purpose of Program: Our Board of Education stewarded our district to fill a gaping hole in both our community and school program. They saw our families in dire need of daycare for children who could attend traditional kindergarten programming, but were not developmentally ready. In previous years, the parents of these precious children would have been forced to pay for expensive daycare or make the difficult decision to start kindergarten knowing it will likely be a negative experience for all.  Our district filled this void by adopting a Nature-Based DK (Developmental Kindergarten). We decided to name the program “Bentley Nature Begindergarten”. We chose Begindergarten because this program is the student’s chance at “beginning kindergarten.”

Not only is the Begindergarten curriculum more age-appropriate, the mission is to offer a high quality learning environment while initiating students into a life-long, meaningful relationship with the natural world.

Nature Begindergarten offers discovery-based learning through play, sensory, gross and fine motor activities and creative expression, using the natural world to spark children’s growth and development. The curriculum includes art, music, social and cognitive skill development and natural science exploration. Children build their knowledge through their first-hand experiences with nature, classroom materials and their relationships with peers and adults.

Bentley Begindergarten growing plants

Program Impact: Nature Begindergarten absolutely saves our youngest learners, potentially for the rest of their academic careers. Children not ready for kindergarten typically have negative experiences in a big school world they aren’t able to navigate. They “learn” much in this poor model. They learn they feel bad about themselves and they aren’t as good as other kids. They learn that school is a place that hurts. Nature Begindergarten destroys this paradigm. The play-based, social/emotional curriculum curriculum is something they can handle. They now learn how to get along with others, building healthy relationships, and how to handle conflict. These ideals intertwined with learning about bugs, butterflies, flowers, and the natural world provides an absolutely amazing “classroom” for this journey. Children who would have learned “school hurts,” now go home to their parents happy, physically and emotionally healthy, and wanting to go back to school each day. 

Nature Begindergarten also fosters community involvement in we have formed a partnership with For-Mar nature preserve. Our teacher and kids take a bus to For-Mar four days a week, and get to enjoy the vast splendor of this preserve. Likewise, their degreed Naturalists develop weekly lesson plans with our teacher and sprinkle outdoor education into the objectives of the curriculum. This may be the only partnership of its kind in the entire state if scope and sequence is considered! Begindergarten also provides guest-speaking opportunities for local farmers, botanists, local nursery owners, the DNR, and many others!

In terms of critical thinking and problem solving, our entire curriculum is based on developing these skills. These students would have been forced into a more academic scenario complete with teacher pressure to make sure objectives like counting milestones are achieved. The fact of the matter is these students need to learn how to think their way through behavioral and social choices before we can focus on how high they count. Likewise, the outdoor aspect offers many problem solving nuances a traditional classroom just does not. An example would be students problem solving in terms of “measuring” how much water it takes to make a dirt-cake in the mud-kitchen!

In terms of ethics, social responsibility, and leadership, let’s us refer to a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Our youngest learners are indeed developing empathy, appreciation, and true kinship with animals, all things nature, and even each other. Nature Begindergarten provides the opportunity to have children who may have gone a lifetime without ever seeing the woods to becoming true advocates for creatures, and leaders in terms of environmental responsibility. Like the aforementioned quote, we believe our Begindergarten program is driving moral progress in our children, and providing a level of greatness to our school, our community, our county, or state, and our nation, even if it is only fifteen “knee-high-naturalists” at a time!

Bentley Begindergarten kids in red suits

How Grant Will Be Used: To expand our program, we will use the grant to help fund the creation of our outdoor learning center. Behind our elementary school, we are in the midst of expanding outdoor play opportunities for students. We hope that by creating this outdoor learning center, it can be used by our entire elementary school to infuse nature into the entire curriculum. As part of this center, we look forward to creating a music garden, created from natural materials; an outdoor, natural play area, covered in natural materials; tree-like climbing apparati; several sand and mud kitchens so the students can explore their tactile and creative skills; and hollow blocks so students can learn to build and problem solve. 

We are currently working on planning the center and seeking funds to build it. This grant will help us install several prior mentioned learning stations for our students. By expanding this outdoor learning center, we will be able to provide more opportunities for our students to grow academically, physically, and socio-emotionally as leaders in our schools and community. 

Program Coordinator: Elizabeth Buckhold, Director of Grants & Technology,

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