Imagine beginning your first job as a preschool director with the world in lockdown, focused on restrictions, rules, protocols, and procedures. Last summer, my dreams of creative classroom communities gave way to safety and sanitizing. As I reflect on this year, I am surprised to have learned that the pandemic provided a blessing in disguise for our Temple Shir Tikva Early Learning Center community.

We have five classrooms of children (18 months to 5 years old), and the teachers love and respect each child as an individual with thoughts, opinions, and ideas. They nurture each child to be their most authentic selves. As a Reggio-inspired program, we refer to the classroom environment, both indoors and outdoors, as the third teacher. Thus, the intentional ways in which the teachers prepare the classroom environment promote relationships, communication, collaboration, and exploration through play.

As we planned for the start of the school year, we sought to figure out how to provide a developmentally appropriate, fun, and engaging curriculum, while also maintaining strict COVID guidelines. At first, we were overwhelmed by all of the unknowns and the long list of restrictions. No sensory tables. No dress-up clothes. Nothing in the classroom that can resemble food. No sharing art materials. But in the face of all the “no” we started to think about the creative ways to say “yes.”

We brainstormed all of the outdoor spaces our building and adjacent summer campgrounds have to offer, and the myriad ways in which we could use them. The list was long, creative, and full of possibilities. And still, I wondered, would we be able to create rich and meaningful curriculum for/with the children, while also maintaining health and safety guidelines? I very quickly found out that the answer was yes.

If COVID had not forced us to “take the inside outside,” as a very wise 4-year-old phrased it, the classrooms might look as they always had, with dress-up and sensory tables, with shared materials and food. Maybe we wouldn’t have spent as much time outside and I am convinced that while the curriculum would still have been wonderful, it would not have been as magical.

The children ventured into our “outdoor classrooms” for everything from art projects to lunch to large architectural work with logs and sticks. They created habitats for animals and used twigs, leaves, and acorns to make “food.” They hunted for tracks and bear caves. They used the natural materials they collected, and the beauty of our outdoor classrooms, to dive deeply into their curiosities and find wonder in their world.

With one class, this led to a deeper study of the Teton Range. This group of 4- and 5-year-olds, led by two innovative teachers, learned many facts about the animals of the Teton Range, curated a video that they shared with their parents, and created a mural. They used a variety of recycled materials and paint to construct a life-sized baby bison, focusing for long stretches of time, all working on different parts of the project. In this one project alone, they learned math (size and measurement), science (facts about the bison), and how to work together as part of a team as they shared ideas, negotiated, and compromised with each other (social-emotional learning, moral education, and social democracy).

The outdoor classroom was not the only site for creativity. Inside, the teachers set up provocations with loose parts and recyclable materials in beautiful ways, which allowed for the children to explore freely and let their imaginations run wild. They made s’mores out of cotton balls. They used paint, wallpaper samples, buttons, and branches to make a berry bush, food for the Teton Range bears!

If the children could not find the material they needed in the art center, or if they had not collected it on a nature walk, they acquired the skills to ask for what they needed. They have gained the confidence to know their needs and trust their instincts when bringing their vision to life—another example of taking the inside outside! The children were taking what was inside their imaginations, constructing meaning, and bringing it outside their minds as they created and shared with their classmates and fellow creators.

Much to the surprise of the classroom teachers, some investigations (like the one about animals that inhabit the Teton Range) lasted for several months. Child development experts tell us that 4- and 5-year-olds should be able to focus on a task for 15-20 minutes. Nature inspired the children and their learning, and they were able to spend long amounts of time on a topic. The teachers took cues from the children and allowed them to develop their ideas and delve into the topics that interested them. We discovered that with unrestricted time, and with a small group (due to the COVID protocols), the learning is different.

Last summer I wondered how we would overcome the obstacles presented by COVID. What I found is that the combination of creative teachers, imaginative children, natural materials, and outdoor spaces helped us turn obstacles into opportunities. The children are thriving. They are learning. They are joyful. They are excited to come to school every day and make discoveries. They have made good friends and created shared experiences. They are part of the group of children who will have vague memories of their time during the coronavirus. They might remember the months at home, but I think, more than anything else, they will remember coming to school and learning about bison. One day, maybe they will want to go there to experience it for themselves. Knowledge and a thirst for learning. Bringing the inside outside in multiple ways. That is the magic that has come out of this experience. And the fact that the children shaped their own learning—that’s the true blessing of this year.

Originally published in an abridged form in the Early Childhood Education of Reform Judaism newsletter, UNITE.

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