Building Naturalists

Tamarack Nature Center’s preschool takes learning outdoors.
A Tamarack preschooler deeply focused on his task.

The Early Childhood Learning Center at Tamarack Nature Center isn’t your ordinary preschool. In fact, from the moment you step onto the 320-acre property, it’s easy to see the unique center has much to offer its young learners.

The Tamarack Nature Center has been part of White Bear Township for many years, giving visitors a place to hike, explore and learn about nature. For the last 10 years, a preschool program has operated within a pre-existing classroom in the center, but now two brand-new classrooms have furthered the opportunity to blend nature with learning. The addition, which opened in September, was funded by the Legacy Amendment Parks and Trails Fund of Minnesota, and also includes kitchenettes and additional bathrooms, as well as a parent waiting area, an office and space for classroom preparation.

The program is designed so an early childhood education teacher from the school district and a naturalist from the nature center lead the daily activities in each room. Heidi Faris, one of the naturalists who co-teaches alternating morning and afternoon classes throughout the week, follows curriculum taught in the White Bear Lake school district while incorporating nature aspects into the learning. “A lot of [the curriculum] is imagination and creativity, so we might have a focus of the day in learning about trees,” Faris explains. “But on our adventure, they might find tracks or the kids might discover something, and we let them do a lot of the leading to empower them in their choices.”

Many families—nearly 100—enroll their children in the preschool because they want their child to have exposure to the outdoors and the freedom to explore and learn through nature. Marlena DeBauche is one of the parents who appreciates the amount of time her 5-year-old son, Ben, is able to spend outside each day. The focus on learning through nature has offered Ben lessons in tapping maple trees for syrup and making homemade cider from apples.

Getting creative with the space also means the staff brainstorms different ways to bring nature inside the classrooms, which are designed for up to18 students. A favorite project this year involved the students making “nature journals” fashioned out of sticks, twine and paper. The preschoolers use their journals for safekeeping special leaves and plants they discover on hikes.

DeBauche credits the teachers and naturalists with encouraging the children to learn from and observe the world around them. “The other day we were walking home and we saw garbage on the side of the road,” she recalls. “It was my son’s idea to pick it up and make sure it got thrown away. He told me how important it is for us to take care of the environment.”

The preschoolers are proud to show the parents what they learn and create. After reading the book Stone Soup, the Tamarack teachers and students harvested beans and vegetables from their own garden at the center. Together, they combined all the ingredients to make their own version of the soup and invited the families to come enjoy it with them.

With the program’s focus on making learning meaningful for children, the abundance of animals, plants and outdoor space leaves room for endless creativity. One thing is clear: The teachers and naturalists are thrilled to be doing what they do; providing such a unique way of learning with nature.

A Day in the Life of a Tamarack Preschooler:
9-11:30 a.m. / 1-3:30 p.m.

  • Outdoor hike/adventure focusing on topic of the day
  • Sing hello and welcome one another
  • Group time
  • Snack
  • Free-choice activity
  • Lesson and story time
  • Clean-up
  • “What we did today” whiteboard summary
  • Parent pick-up