Jason Hamzy is an artist, educator, and co-owner/operator of Little Schoolhouse in the Woods outdoor preschool. He has been running Little Schoolhouse with his wife, Lee for four years. In that time, he has completed his teaching degree, earning a Bachelor's Interdisciplinary Studies Pre-K through 5th. In spite of all that he learned in college, Jason is amazed at how much he has learned from his wife, Lee. Her experience of more than a decade of working with children, in a Waldorf setting, and at home, has shown him what true dedication to the education of the whole child is all about. The kids call him Mr. Jay, and he hopes that he is fortunate enough to hear that name for many more years.
What an exciting time it has been for us this schoolyear! While we generally eschew technology for analog methods, we have embraced the 21st century with a wildlife viewing camera! While my personal goal is to capture images of a flying squirrel (I’ve read there are more of them than the gray squirrel, but they are more elusive because they are nocturnal!), we have been enjoying solving the mysteries of what visitors we have when we aren’t around. We have mostly seen possum and racoons, but anticipate more animals as we gradually exit winter and enter spring. This is incorporated in an ongoing lesson on the biodiversity of animal species right here in our backyard of Mt. Airy Forest. A big helper has been the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. They offer a wide range of learning materials and resources. The best part: it’s free!! If you aren’t taking advantage of this wonderful resource for your outdoor classroom, don’t waste another minute!
We have also been able to fulfill a longtime desire to tap our trees! Mary Dudley, agriculture education teacher at James N. Gamble Montessori High School (and one of our Board members!) visited us a couple weeks ago with a student and another associate, Howard Zuefle of Verdure Landscaping, LLC, who loaned us the materials and helped us tap our trees! Mr. Z worked with the children to ensure there was understanding and gratitude for the gift of the sap that the trees were sharing with us. The children were almost as excited as we were! Boiling the sap and allowing it to cool, we have enjoyed a little treat by simply sipping the sap. We can’t wait to try and make syrup! I wonder what we’ll try it on…
We continue to feed and watch the birds, though the ice and snow have forced us to put away our bird watch box, which contains laminated photos of the most common birds and some recently purchased monoculars. It is marvelous how many birds the feeders attract, especially during the winter months. We enjoy noting the various birds that we don’t normally see during the other parts of the year, especially the number of cardinals, which tend to flock to our feeders during the winter months. Interestingly, we noticed far fewer cardinals in the past couple days compared to the past several weeks! Maybe it’s a sign that spring is around the corner!
We have been loving winter, but are already beginning to dream of Spring!
Now is the time to hunt Spring Ephemerals. Spring Ephemerals refers to perennial plants that emerge quickly in the spring and die back to their underground parts after a short growth and reproduction phase. In a deciduous forest, like ours, they grow before the trees have their leaves allowing sun to reach the forest floor. This is a very short amount of time, so take advantage of the timing, and head out today and for the next week or so.
Here is an excellent Ohio Spring Wildflowers downloadable field guide from the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Please remember, these flowers only grow once a year. Please stay on the paths while out searching and do not pick them! We want them to be there for many springs to come. Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.
How many can you find?
Here is a list of the ephemerals that we often see here at the Little Schoolhouse in the Woods or in nearby parks. Refer to the field guide for pictures to help identify them. Remember to look at the leaves, several flowers have look a likes. Happy Spring hiking!
Harbinger- of -Spring
White Trout Lily
Wild Blue Phlox ( can also come in pink)
Lesser Celandine (highly invasive, not native)
Dutchman’s – breeches ( one of Ms. Lee’s favorite 😉 )
A Note from Mr. Jay- Are you interested in a formal lesson plan for grades 1 through 3, but easily adapted for older and younger students? I use Ohio New Learning Standards and the National Geographic Learning Framework to create a formal lesson plan. This is good for any teacher whose administration requires formal lesson plans, or for alternative educators who seek academic language to support their strategies. Let me know what you think in the comments below. I love feedback!
Ms. Lee has put together this handy list for identifying local birds. It has links to the online Audubon Field Guid for each bird on the list for information and identification purposes. We love the Audubon Society of Ohio and hope that you consider becoming a member and supporting this vital organization.
If you would like an activity that is simple, fun and helps promote following instructions and perseverance while developing fine motor skills, try making a Magic Cord with your children!
This activity is excellent for teaching children how to follow instructions and develop their fine motor skills. They must hold on tightly to the ends while they are twisting them together. Watch out! The strings tend to fly out of their fingers as they practice tightly grasping with their fingers while alternating hands. You have to start over, sometimes several times. They also must grasp tightly as they pass it back to the teacher. Don’t get discouraged, but laugh and enjoy the process. Model how much fun it is to try and how the next time, it will be easier. Keep doing it until it is well twisted.
Take three or more pieces of colorful yarn at least 2 feet long, or more, depending on your preference, and tie them together at one end.
Have child hold the knotted end while you hold the loose end.
Have the child begin twisting their ends in one direction. You begin twisting your end in the opposite direction. You can count to 100 or sing a song, but twist it a lot. It will start to fold, so you’ll have to hold on tight and keep it pulled straight while you continue to twist. If you drop it, pick it up and start twisting it again.
Grab the middle of the twisted string and have the child hand you their end. You hold both ends and countdown “3, 2, 1”. Then you let goof the knotted end while holding onto the loose ends and the knotted end. The yarn twists up into a thicker string. Tie all the loose ends and the knotted end so that it won’t come undone.
Voila! A magic cord!
This is a great open-ended object for playing with or makes a cute necklace or bracelet.
NOTE: Actively supervise children so that they aren’t napping with it, putting it around their neck or putting it in their mouth or wrapping it tightly around their extremities.
If you would like a formal lesson plan for your administrators or because you’d like more details, click here: Magic Cord Lesson Plan
I recommend this lesson plan for folks in the Cincinnati region. These fossils are common in the creek beds all around southwest Ohio. In this time of school closures and physical distancing, getting outdoors in nature is the perfect way to beat the house bound blahs! Steer clear of the playgrounds and go out into the woods or creek walk.
Here are some beautiful natural places in Cincinnati you may want to explore:
I wrote this lesson as part of my National Geographic certification, and I am sharing it here with you. I hope you get outdoors with your child or students and enjoy learning a little bit about the history of this area while doing some hands on, fun, nature-based activities.
Some great places to check out would be:
These three links will take you to some ID sheets to help you sort. Laminate them and reuse them!
How A Healthy “No” Establishes Positive Boundaries
One of the skills I had to learn as an early childhood educator was how to say, “No”. At first, I was uncomfortable denying a young child anything. “Yes” is a much easier path. My impulse was to do everything and give anything to and for these cute kids. I certainly didn’t want to see them experience discomfort. It didn’t take long before I realized that children often experience discomfort because they want something to be a certain way that it cannot be. I also learned that a child needs to know their boundaries in order feel secure. Having a set of clear expectations is the foundation for healthy early childhood approaches.
Boundaries were made to be tested.
Children test the boundaries because they are searching for what is ok and what isn’t. It’s perfectly natural and a developmentally necessary process. They learn these boundaries through a series of trial and error tests. If I want these kids to be safe and I don’t want to lose my mind during transitions, I have to learn how to say, “No”. What I’ve observed is that children are grateful for limits. They know it keeps them safe and they know that a competent, caring adult is taking care of them.
“No” means “no”, not a punishment.
Saying “no” isn’t about punitive discipline or withholding necessities or privileges from children. Saying “no” is about setting clear boundaries that work for child and caregiver. Ultimately, it is about clear communication. When we are able to articulate what is acceptable behavior in clear, simple terms, children are better able to function. Children feel secure knowing their boundaries. That doesn’t mean they won’t push those boundaries. It is the educator/caregiver’s task to navigate these boundaries with respect for the individual and to be fair minded in their approach. I strive for a balance between being firm and being a big softy.
What are healthy boundaries?
When we are preparing to go outside during cold, wet weather, it is important that the children are dressed appropriately. It can be the difference between a fun, productive excursion into the woods and a miserable, difficult time. In the past, if we have gone out into the forest with a group of children and realized that one child put on their sneakers instead of their insulated winter boots, it really changes our desired outcomes. Once their feet are damp, they become uncomfortable and unpleasant. While this is a great example of “natural consequences of actions”, it isn’t fair to the other children, not to mention the teachers.
These experiences have led me to be explicit in my instructions. “Everyone put on your snow boots after you have put on your snow pants” lets them know exactly what is expected of them. And I always double check that all children are wearing appropriate footwear before we leave. Healthy early childhood approaches uses clear communication of expectations and boundaries.
What does that look like?
Here is an example of a a healthy “no”: Student “A” is excited about his new licensed character shoes that light up. As we gear up to head outside, “A” decides that their snow boots are too big and clunky. They want to wear their new sneakers. A friendly but firm “no, those shoes won’t keep your feet warm and dry like your snow boots will” may be all that needs to be said. In case this isn’t enough of an explanation, we must remain calm and firmly insist that the sneakers are not an option. It is cold and wet outside and the sneakers will not be appropriate footwear.
We refrain from arguing. An explanation is acceptable, though. If Student “A” decides that this is an issue worth crying about, that is ok. Disappointment is a real emotion and we must allow children to experience the entire range of feelings, including the unpleasant ones.
The educator’s role in establishing boundaries
Our job is to stay grounded and to be the emotional anchor for this child. We may have to assist more than we normally would in this case. I might say, “I can see that it upsets you. You will get to wear your cool new kicks later on, but right now, we are all going outside together. Can you put your boots on yourself, or do you need me to help you?” By offering a choice between independence and and assistance, we recognize the child’s need for ownership over their choices while only offering realistic options.
An unrealistic option may be to offer letting them go outside barefoot or allowing them to wear their new shoes. In the end, giving in to tantrums allows children to become tyrants, but being firm in our resolve while compassionately assist them in make good decisions. This helps them to manage their expectations and to regulate their own emotions.
It is important to only offer what we are willing to follow through on. If the child is unable to calm down and put on their snow boots, we can calmly let them know that we are about to help them put their boots on. We do so in a gentle, calm manner, never angry or irritated. Children can sense impatience and it confuses and frustrates both parties, often exacerbating the situation. We are adults who are calmly and lovingly helping them to get ready to go outside and play. The security of a calm, rational adult caring for them allows children to just be a kid and play.
Interested in learning more? Take our Resilient Kids Course!
Lee and I will be leading a discussion course at UC’s Communiversity about the strategies we use to encourage resilient, healthy, confident kids. “The Power of ‘NO'” is the first of ten strategies we’ll share over the course of a 2 classes, 2 hours each. We’ll share anecdotes, specific words and phrases and real take away strategies for supporting healthy development. Each class will include time to share and discuss. Come join us and learn our healthy early childhood approaches for instilling grit in early childhood at our Resilient Kids Course.
This is what student-led curriculum looks like. While our focus is on social and emotional development during early childhood, educators should be responding to the needs of the children. We don’t decide that it is time to begin teaching letters, the children do.
When we observe the lunch table discussions center around the first letters of their names or the children show pride in spelling their names or we observe other indications through their play that they are ready, we look for a fun game to incorporate into the circle.
This is a simple, fun game to play for letter recognition in early childhood. This homemade box is our ABC Alligator, and we sing a little song:
“Alligator, Alligator, down by the lake,
Let ________ reach in and see letter what you ate!”
Each child gets a turn to reach in and pull out a letter. They either identify it, or ask for help from the group. We then come up with words that begin with that sound. Assessment occurs informally through observation, and there is no pass/fail. We want it to be fun, and there are no wrong answers. This is a low-risk, play-based, student-led game that the kids have a blast playing. It may be the beginning of letter recognition, phonics, and spelling for some, while reinforcing those skills already present in others. The mixed age group pairs well with the scaffolding of the developing reading skills, too. Children who have an answer learn impulse control while their friend figures out if they know the letter or if they want to ask for that help. We all have fun singing the song and coming up with words that begin with the letter.
One final note about academics in early childhood: We believe the focus in early childhood should be social and emotional health, developmentally appropriate circles and a focus on the natural environment. Having said that, we embrace an interdisciplinary approach that uses whichever pedagogy is most effective. This occurs through mindful observations of the children during free play and throughout the rhythms and routines of the day. Our curriculum focus is on meeting both the individual’s and the group’s needs in developmentally appropriate ways.
A soft breeze blows through the leafless trees while a gentle mist softens the air surrounding a small group of children. The sounds of laughter and playful shrieks echoes through the winter hillside as a small creek babbles by. At first, the children toss rocks into the shallow stream. Then, one jumps as high as he can and lands with a splash in the middle of the stream, splashing his mates. Instead of anger or irritation, the other children join in. They are laughing, climbing out onto nearby rocks and doing it again and again. In fact, they continue to splash and play in the creek for nearly an hour, happily enjoying the sensations of sight and sound as the water muddies and flows downstream.
There are two adults supervising all of this with quiet amusement. No, they are not irritated that the children are getting wet and they will have to go back inside soon. They understand that children are participating in important work: playing in nature. They also know that the children are dressed properly for the chilly, damp weather. They have on insulated, water-proof boots and one piece rain suits over warm layers that keep them dry and warm.
There are fewer and fewer opportunities for children to engage in outdoor play, especially in weather deemed “inappropriate”. Most public schools have policies that keep children inside on chilly or damp days. This is often in response to parents’ concerns over health and safety. The truth is, there is no bad weather, just bad clothes.
“No Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothes”
This is a well known phrase amongst outdoor educators. When learning takes place, it is important to remember that basic needs like physical well-being must be met. This is the basic principal behind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Children learn best when they are safe, clothed and fed. That is why it is so crucial for outdoor educators to ensure their students are dressed appropriately for the outdoors.
In a group of 7 or 8 children, if there is one child who is not outfitted properly, this is the child who is crying and ready to go home while the rest of the children are blissfully playing. Being able to play outdoors is a skill that children learn. Having positive experiences means being dressed appropriately so that they associate outdoor play with fun!
At Little Schoolhouse in the Woods, we have a favorite rain suit: Tuffo. That isn’t to say that there aren’t others, but our experiences with Tuffo have been awesome! And, no, we are not being compensated for this endorsement. For the children, a one piece suit like Tuffo’s Muddy Buddy work best. The children tend to fall and slide and play in ways that adults don’t, and the one piece design keeps them thoroughly dry. Plus, when sized right, there is room for coats and layers underneath. I don’t recommend tucking their pant legs into the boots, but, instead, keeping them on the outside of the boot. A dry kid is a happy kid!
Boundaries help children feel safe. Children often act out when they do not know what is expected of them. They spend a lot of time exploring and pushing the boundaries we set for them. This is a natural and normal process. As adults, it is our job to set limits and to clearly communicate them to our children.
Calm and Clear: The Captains of the Ship
It isn’t necessary to enforce these boundaries with punitive measures or “consequences”, either. Simply stating and consistently standing firm on the principals we set forth is all that is necessary. Repetition and consistency foster the security children crave. As adults, we must exercise patience in this process because it is a process. It isn’t a lesson that happens once, and then it’s over. We must often set limits and communicate them clearly many times before they are understood. Being matter-of-fact about these limits is important, too. This isn’t an emotional struggle, it is a safety issue.
“Hold my hand in the parking lot. I will keep you safe.” We are the adults, it is important to maintain a calm, firm hand on the rudder. We are in charge, and we know what is best. When we lose our cool and shout or punish, it shows a lack of control, and then who is steering the ship? “I see that you don’t want to hold my hand right now, so I will carry you. I love you and will keep you safe.”
The only time I find it necessary to enforce rules with punitive measures isn’t even actually punitive. It is an issue of safety. If a child is physically going to harm themselves or others, I may have to say, “You know you may not throw the blocks. I cannot let you hurt your friends. It is time to play elsewhere,” then I assist that child in finding another place to play. We should avoid getting frustrated or angry. Being firm shows confidence and lets children know that we are serious. We do not need to shout or threaten to be effective leaders. And, yes, it is okay to acknowledge a child is upset or distressed, but we mustn’t allow that to distress and upset us.
The Importance of Free-play
I am a big proponent of free-play. Children benefit from time to do what they want in a safe environment. Free-play does not mean anarchy, it means freedom to play and explore the world around them without interference from adults or danger. Our job is to keep them safe, not tell them how to play. Through this kind of play, children develop a healthy sense of independence.
Start Early. Hug often.
Boundaries are erected when the limits are clearly communicated. You don’t need a fence, you need to be clear and consistent with your expectations. It is harder to place limits once a child knows that there are none. I once heard this analogy: Our children need warm, tight hugs when they are younger, and, as boundaries are expanded, we can loosen those hugs. Once a child has unlimited freedom, it is nearly impossible to reign in those limits. We must have clear, consistent, and reasonable boundaries and expectations from children at an early age. As they mature and show competence in different areas, we may loosen restrictions and broaden boundaries appropriately. If we give children total freedom from the beginning, they don’t feel safe, and will not understand when we place new restrictions on them.
Mr. Jay is an outdoor educator with Little Schoolhouse in the Woods. He learned everything he knows about early childhood education from his wife and co-teacher, Ms. Lee (Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/littleschoolhouseinthewoods/). Mr. Jay holds a Bachelor’s degree in Early Education, PK-3, with a 4th and 5th grade endorsement.
Are we truly helping children when we do things for them? It depends on where the child is developmentally. According to Vygotsky, a prominent education theorist, children learn best when tasks aren’t too hard or too easy, known as the zone of proximal development (1978). The amount of help from adults and peers can be referred to as scaffolding (Wood et al. ,1976). Scaffolding refers to the assistance a person needs when learning a new task or concept. This assistance is removed when no longer needed. Being tuned into an individual child’s developmental readiness is a key factor for knowing when and how much scaffolding is needed for a particular skill.
It is important to focus on building a growth mindset through praise of effort, not achievement. Children will grow up and be able to put their shoes on by themselves. Our goal isn’t only to teach children how to accomplish the task, but to encourage them to develop a sense of perseverance. We do not praise children for putting their shoes on, we praise their effort.
Watching a child struggle to solve a problem on their own without interfering can be difficult to do. If you have been truly present with your child, and connected with them in a real way, it will be easier to let go and allow them to play by themselves or to work at mastering a task such as putting on their own socks. I know that I often want to swoop in and hand them that thing they are struggling to reach, or to switch their shoes so that they are on the right feet, but true learning comes from trial and error. That means they try, and sometimes, they fail. It is through the mistakes that children learn what to adjust for the next time. Because there will be a next time. That is when fostering perseverance pays off.
Here are some tips to promote perseverance:
Allow children the time and opportunity to dress themselves.
Let children solve puzzles and build block towers, train tracks, etc. all by themselves.
Know your child and only assist when necessary and as little as possible. Don’t immediately do something for a child when you see them struggle.
Allow children to drink out of regular cups and glasses. Sippy cups may avoid spills, but that is how children learn.
Stay calm and patient. Not only does this model the behavior we want from our children, but it lets them know we have confidence in their abilities to master tasks.
Building self-confidence and endurance in early childhood is a foundation for happiness later in life. In order to develop these characteristics, children need time and space to practice doing things for themselves. Life is hectic, and we are often on deadlines and schedules, rushing from one place or activity to another. Whenever possible, calmly, patiently allow a child to struggle. Avoid getting emotional or impatient, and just observe. If necessary, offer advice or a hand in moving forward, but as much as possible, allow children the opportunity to accomplish their tasks on their own. In the end, they will be better off by having struggled and built up their perseverance.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.