Early Childhood Program Heads Back to School, Bringing Nature-Based STEM Learning to Pre-K Students

Most area school districts begin classes this month. Alongside all of the students and teachers, those heading back to the classroom include members of the FWBG | BRIT early childhood education team. They will spend the school year helping some of the youngest learners in our area explore the outdoors.

“Our goal is to help teachers incorporate nature into learning for three-year-old pre-k students,” says Early Childhood Program Manager Cheryl Potemkin. “It’s a really powerful program that brings so much both to students and teachers.”

Bella the Begonia and Carlos Cactus puppets
Bella the Begonia, the education team’s puppet mascot, leads outdoor adventures along with friends such as Carlos Cactus.

The Bella Outreach program began in 2017 with FWBG | BRIT educators serving seven classrooms spread across four campuses in Fort Worth ISD. By last year, it had expanded to eight campuses and 11 classrooms. In the 2022-23 school year, the program will reach 20 new classrooms in three new school districts: Castleberry, Lake Worth and White Settlement.

The program has several components. One critical element is placing nature-focused books in classrooms for teachers to read to their students. Another is providing teachers with professional development courses and nature-based curriculum.

The third factor is a monthly classroom visit by FWBG | BRIT early childhood experts. They bring along Bella the Begonia for an outdoor exploration with the students. “We go out and explore their campus. If they’ve read about grasses that month, we go find grasses. If we’re talking about wildflowers, we hunt for dandelions,” says Potemkin. The goal is to get students outside and interacting with the plants they see everyday, even in an urban environment.

Students love it, says Potemkin. “I have so many stories,” she says. “One boy was very shy about speaking in class, and he barely said a word. By the end of the program, he was talking to us about butterflies, using the proper terminology and speaking extensively. His teacher said he only talks when Bella comes. Those lessons really connected with that student. That sort of thing happens all of the time.”

Teachers also gain confidence in using their campus as a classroom. “Before they might have only gone outside to the playground. Now they’re looking for wildflowers with their students. It really expands their horizons,” says Potemkin.

The education team seeks to share its experience with teachers beyond the Bella Outreach program. Early childhood educators are invited to join the Early Childhood Impact Series, a professional development program that invites teachers to work with their peers and FWBG | BRIT experts over four sessions during the school year. Teachers gain a greater understanding of how to connect literacy and science, gain experience exploring the outdoors with young students and learn best practices for creating and using outdoor learning environments. Enrollment is open through Sept. 12 for the 2022-23 Impact Series.

“Students today have very little access to nature,” says Potemkin. “We’re excited to help these students learn the joy exploring the outdoors.”

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