In school systems across the country, there is a movement to get children back in touch with the great outdoors. A Chabad preschool in the heart of urban Los Angeles, California has recently received certification and commendation from the organization Nature Explore for “fostering highly effective, nature-based outdoor learning.”
Nature Explore was developed by a team of master educators, landscape architects, and researchers in response to the documented growing disconnect between children and nature. Their goal is to “help fill this void by integrating research-based outdoor learning opportunities into children’s daily lives.” The Gan, a division of Chabad of Cheviot Hills, has now joined a network of 450 preschools certified as Nature Explore Classrooms.
“The Gan of Cheviot Hills is one of the unique programs in California that incorporate Jewish culture and Hebrew learning into their nature-based program, adding a spiritual dimension to the program,” said Nature Explore in a press release. The preschool’s director, Mrs. Esther Begun, says the fusion of nature and this spiritual dimension is a natural outgrowth of their philosophy as a Chabad preschool. “In Chabad thought, G-d is hidden in nature. The Hebrew word for nature, hateva, is numerically equivalent to the word elokim, meaning G-d. We believe G-d whispers through nature and kids sense that and attach to it.” She feels that providing opportunities for children to play with natural materials encourages them to discover that hidden divinity.
Esther opened the preschool eight years ago, when her daughter turned three. She brought in Laia Weingarten, a professor of early childhood education, as educational advisor. Laia, who has developed many accredited courses in the early childhood education domain, among them a nature-based pedagogy certificate, is an ardent advocate of nature-based education. “When children are allowed to climb and swing and explore in a natural environment, research shows they become more resilient, their social-emotional skills tend to be higher, and it positively impacts their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being,” she says.
“We are lucky that our Chabad is located on a large piece of land so we had the outdoor space to work with,” Esther says. Gan Mom, Rivka Baitelman is an interior and exterior designer. She creatively turned Chabad’s outdoor space into an outdoor classroom where children learn as they play. Two requirements for certification are at least ten outdoor learning centers and child access to natural materials. In the Gan preschool yard, children pick lemons from the lemon tree and make their own lemonade. They also grow snow peas and other edibles in a vegetable garden. The children build with bamboo, logs, and seashells, pick leaves to paint, and dig in the mud.
“This certification is exciting for us and has already generated a buzz in the community,” says Esther. “In Urban LA it is difficult to find a preschool with the facilities to provide a natural outdoor-classroom environment.”
While the preschool’s nature-based curriculum and recent certification has caught the attention of the community, Laia says it is the Gan’s dedication to the whole child that makes the program stand out. “They honor each child and look at each child as a gift to the world. They really walk the walk and see it as their job to help each child bring out their innate capabilities.”
Esther says that since the preschool’s inception she and Laia have been constantly developing and improving the curriculum and environment. They will not rest on the laurel’s of Nature Explore certification but will continue to provide, “a rich and joyous learning environment that will stimulate our children’s minds, nurture their souls, and embrace the wonder and beauty of our Jewish and American heritage.”