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Learning lessons in a natural setting in Catonsville

There were a variety of snakes in "The Slice" one morning last week, including poisonous snakes, "Barbie" snakes and a Percy Jackson-inspired snake.

All were under the control of their owners, creative preschoolers at Catonsville Presbyterian Church Family Child-Care Center, who struggled against a light wind to paint their egg-carton snake creations.

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"If he is scared, he will bite you and you will get poison," explained Vincent, 4, of his colorful snake.

Once completed, all the "snakes" were placed in a little red wagon and the students were free to explore their outdoor classroom known as "The Slice" — short for "Our Slice of Heaven" — on the Frederick Road campus.

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Before long, 18 little blue-cloaked bodies were climbing mulch piles, stringing ropes, digging for worms or doing chalk drawings on stumps.

"It's so nice to see how they create things with their imagination," said Tory Toomey, one of four teachers for the Otters class. "We have a couple of buckets and bug collectors. They really like the ropes."

Since 2011, Catonsville Presbyterian has offered the nature-focused "Otters" 4-year-old preschool class, along with its traditional 4-year-old class, according to Vanessa Williams, in her second year as the child care center's director.

Unlike the traditional class, the "Otters" class takes students outside every day for over an hour of classroom time. Students go out even if it is raining or snowing. Only if temperatures are extremely hot, or cold, do the students stay inside.

"Usually, the most fun time to go out is when it is raining," said Heather Hollandsworth, the center's assistant director.

The class costs an extra $100 in order to provide students with appropriate outside gear — boots, wader pants and jackets, as well as extra field trips.

"They get all suited up and go to the outside area," Williams said. "They are so independent. They can do it all on their own."

On March 17, for example, the students heard a story about St. Patrick and how he eliminated snakes in Ireland. Then they left their classroom and prepared to go outside, heading to their wet weather gear hanging above their names written on a chalkboard. After much tugging and snapping, all were lined up and ready to go.

"We're like blue minions!" one child exclaimed.

"This is so really important for them to be outside and to experience nature," said Courtney Birkmeyer, an Otters teacher who works as a naturalist during the summer at the nearby Patapsco Valley State Park. "I love teaching them about nature. It's super fun."

Benefits of an outdoor classroom include learning where plants and animals come from and experiencing all types of weather, so there is "never a bad day," according to Karen Madigan, assistant director of the nature preschool at the state park's Irvine Nature Center.

Children who are active outside, climbing on trees or playing on uneven surfaces, develop "a lot of confidence," Madigan said, adding that playing in dirt has also been linked to health benefits.

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"Children develop a love of the Earth," Madigan said. "It becomes their place. They want to take care of it. We feel really strongly about children being outside every day."

The Irvine Nature Center even hosts an annual nature preschool conference in June — representatives from Catonsville Presbyterian have attended — to help preschool staff learn how to incorporate similar programs in their curriculums, whether they have outdoor space or not.

"It's nice when you have a lot space," Madigan said. "Any program could incorporate more nature into their classrooms. A small patch of grass or dirt could have so many wonderful things. There's got to be something out there... to teach about nature."

At Development Daycare Services on Hammonds Lane, owner Donna Laque has various nature projects for her students, from creating nature collages and making bird feeders to learning about insects.

Recently, the students were outside watching a bird make a nest. While she does not have an outdoor classroom session every day, she tries to get her students outside every day.

But she knows her limits. "Rain. Most of my parents wouldn't like that too much," Laque said. "We've taken them out in the snow. They come prepared for that."

Science and nature are part of the curriculum at the Y Preschool in Catonsville according to Betty Sterner, regional preschool director. Last year, the center had a "shoe bag" garden" – a garden of herbs planted in the pockets of a canvas-hanging shoe bag.

"It was a very neat idea and way fun to do," Sterner said. "The children all tasted some of the herbs we grew."

There is a stream on the property, and classes will take nature hikes to it, she said.

Recent construction activity, however, has kept the school's outdoor time limited to the playground only, Sterner said. Children typically do not go outside in the rain, either.

"We take walks, when weather permits," she said.

Back at the Slice, there was great excitement as some worms were discovered for the first time this year.

"It's a whole family in there," said Jeanna, 4, with pride, as she pointed to the bug collector box. "I'm not going to look for anymore. I've got a whole bunch in here."

She didn't hesitate, however, when the time came to let the worms go before heading inside.

"I don't take my worms home," she said. "I leave them outside in the grass, because it likes dirt and grass."

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