Dear Ms. Dani and Ms. Caitlin,
Overwhelmingly it is agreed that preschool provides a foundation for learning both socially and academically. The success of this first educational experience, however, depends on the skill of the preschool teacher.
Dani and Caitlin, you are highly skilled at making a difference in children’s lives, especially our daughter’s. As Finley graduates from Hartley Nature Preschool, Tim and I would like to reflect on the gifts you have given her (and our family).
Thank you for loving Finley between 8:30 and 11:30 three days a week for the last two years. You radiate genuine warmth that makes children feel safe and loved. We know this because of the continuously positive way Finley talked about you. For example, here is a conversation we had during a school break.
Mom: You go back to school on Monday. Who have you been missing that you haven’t seen the last couple of weeks? (fully expecting to hear the names of school friends)
Finley: My beloved teachers.
Another example of how positive she felt about you and her school experience is evident from the items she included on her Thankful List this past Thanksgiving.
Thank you for hugging Finley as a welcome to the day and as a way to end your time together. You respected that she is a very physical child who desires safe and loving touch to feel grounded. And thank you for helping her figure out how to show love to her friends by working with her “hugging with gusto” phase.
Thank you for helping Finley honor her deep emotions when she was grappling with frustration and separation anxiety. You were kind, patient, and resourceful in helping her learn different coping skills.
Your Greatest Gift: Bringing Together Nurture and Nature
Richard Louv, who advocated the importance of strong nature connections for children in his book, Last Child in the Woods, claims,
A natural teacher is one who uses the power of nature as a tool for education or as an environment for learning — not only about nature, but about any subject.
~Richard Louv, Vitamin N
Dani and Caitlin, beyond your remarkable qualities of affection, enthusiasm, and patience, you are truly “natural teachers” who are gifted at harnessing the power of nature to enhance early childhood education.
Thank you for teaching Finley early literacy skills by seeing letters and numbers in nature. When we are in the woods, she often sees sticks representing a Y or a broken tree limb in the shape of a 7. When she showed interest, you also encouraged her developing writing skills by drawing letters in the snow with sticks.
Thank you for teaching Finley how to put on the many layers needed to go outside. At three years old, she could get herself ready from head to toe, giving her a strong feeling of independence (and making our family outings so much smoother).
Thank you for instilling in Finley a reverence for nature. Every school day a little bit of Hartley came home in her pockets. Pine cones. Rocks. Wild leeks. Sticks. Peebles. Dandelions. ALL treasures.
Thank you for being Finley’s “guide on the side” while teaching her about the natural world around her. You balanced independent play and exploration with being present to answer questions and provide explanations. She now can identify different bird calls and often stands outside in our driveway calling “cheeeeseburger” to see if she can get a chickadee to return her “sassy call.” Further, she came home recently after exploring pond water at school, threw herself on the kitchen floor, made her legs into a long tail, wriggled her arms and body, and reported that fairy shrimp have 11 pairs of arms.
Thank you for showing Finley that fun in nature continues into adulthood. While you offered the children much time for free play and expression, you were always willing to jump in the fun, proving that being outdoors provides life-long enjoyment.
Thank you for giving Finley time to be physically active and build her physical confidence through nature play. For example, you gave the kiddos ample time at the gigantic climbing tree in front of the Nature Center — truly the best kind of playground equipment for learning risk assessment and balance.
Thank you for providing Finley endless opportunities to learn how the world works. Making mud cakes at the playscape provided on-going science lessons. Building forts with long logs required learning how to work as a team. In this video, the preschoolers are learning about physics and problem solving (note how the child changes locations to get the log to balance).
Thank you for allowing Finley to explore nature at her own pace. It takes patience to allow children to be in the moment and not interrupt or rush them. Your patience is commendable.
Thank you for helping Finley build a nature vocabulary. We’ll never forget the moment we were hiking in the woods a few weeks after starting Hartley Nature Preschool when three-year-old Finley enthusiastically proclaimed, “Midden pile! Midden pile!” We were confused because we thought she was saying “mitten” pile. She had to explain to us that the large pile of pinecone scales at the base of a nearby tree was left by a squirrel and called a “midden pile.” Who knew?
Thank you for allowing Finley to experience the seasons to their fullest extent and extremes. She was able to catch snowflakes on her tongue, jump in puddles, roll in autumn leaves, and catch minnows — making learning rhythmic and natural.
Thank you for giving her the gift of fresh air in all types of (safe) weather. She has truly internalized that there is no bad weather, just bad clothes, as the Scandinavians say. In the depth of winter, you didn’t bat an eye at taking 20 minutes to get 16 kids geared up to go outside for only 7 minutes (because your NOAA chart reported this is the safest amount of time given the current temperature and wind chill). Further, in her mind, rain is a reason to go outside, not stay inside.
Thank you for teaching Finley mindfulness and deep breathing by using nature. She reported at dinner one night that at school she put a rock on her belly and made it go up and down as she breathed in and out. Making this concrete connection between her body and breath gives her a tool to calm her mind, increase self-awareness, and experience her natural senses.
Beyond all of these experiences, you also fit in all the regular indoor preschool activities like playing dress up, making art, and reading books — often with a nature theme. Finley’s preschool art hangs proudly on our kitchen bulletin board.
Towards a Teary Goodbye. At some point a letter must close. However, it is difficult to end this note because we have so much for which to be thankful. You are both gifted teachers who make a phenomenal team. Thank you for making a deep impact on our daughter (and so many other children) by fostering a love of nature and learning that she will take with her throughout her life.
Kristina and Tim
P.S. A successful preschool program cannot happen without the support of many people. Our family would also like to thank Kaitlin, the Hartley Nature Preschool director, and the rest of the Hartley Nature Center staff for tirelessly fulfilling the vision of bringing a nature preschool to Hartley Park. We are honored that Finley was part of your inaugural years.
P.S.S. Thank you also to Hartley Nature Preschool for allowing Outside In Duluth to use these photos and all the parents who gave consent to show pictures of their kids learning and having fun through nature play.