Several children enrolled in Cleveland Metroparks Nature Preschool discovered a large downed tree with its circular roots exposed. The kids proclaimed the tree in the designated play area to be a rocket ship, and the roots became its steering wheel. Another downed tree with a branch laying across it was transformed into a seesaw.
“The children didn’t know the name for what they invented, but they knew it was fun to ride on,” says Nature Preschool Administrator and teacher Bev Walborn.
Hmmm…could it also be that the children were using their imaginations and fueling their creativity while learning botany and the ups and downs of physics?
The Metroparks Nature Preschool is just one example of how the park district carries out one of its most important missions.
“We have an awesome responsibility to teach all people — young and old — about the nature realm,” says Cleveland Metroparks Chief Executive Officer Brian Zimmerman. “Our staff is dedicated to education. I always say, ‘If not us, who?’”
Nature Preschool opened for the first time in the fall of 2018 and will run annually from September to May. Located in a dedicated classroom in the Rocky River Nature Center in North Olmsted, the mixed-age classes serve children 3 to 5 years old. The morning class meets three days a week, and the afternoon class two days a week. Both are three-hour sessions that allow for daily outdoor experiences, regardless of the weather. Listening guidelines allow for 10 children in each class.
“Being able to reach 20 children at Rocky River Nature Center has been a great success, and the school is a wonderful model. But it isn’t enough,” laments Walborn, who notes the school is licensed through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. “We hope to expand and offer more nature preschools across Cleveland Metroparks in the future.”
The preschool’s emphasis is on developing a respect for the natural world, encouraging problem solving and reflection, instilling confidence and promoting skills necessary to transition into kindergarten (think math, science and language development), among other goals.
“This is the only preschool where parents are happy their children come home with mud on their faces,” says Walborn, who adds the curriculum is based on Ohio Early Learning Development Standards.
The preschool also has an impact not just on the children, but their families. For example, the composting container at the facility has interested many parents who want to adapt the idea for home use.
If you can’t get to a park, it will come to you. That’s the abbreviated mission behind Metroparks Mobile Outreach. The initiative was established in 1976 as a partnership between the park district and the Cleveland Foundation. Studies showed many residents of Cleveland did not have the lifestyles and health that come with access to parks, according to Outreach Manager Angelec Hillsman.
“Cleveland Metroparks made an effort to serve those who didn’t have access to green spaces or transportation to get there,” says Hillsman. “Our purpose is to bring the parks to people to educate them about the natural world and the Cleveland Metroparks and to encourage them to visit the parks.”
Mobile Outreach includes two highly visible and customized vehicles. NatureTracks serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade and offers on-site programs including Backyard Neighbors, Food Chain and Forest Habitat. The outreach vehicle travels to schools, churches, community events and parades.
“Inside NatureTracks, it’s like walking into a forest that someone would see in one of our parks,” says Hillsman.
“A lot of times, for the students we are serving on these trips, it’s their first time having exposure to nature even though it’s all around them. On NatureTracks, there are animal mounts they can touch and interactive touch screens. We knock down those fears and misunderstandings about the natural world and encourage teachers to take advantage of programs at our nature center by using bus vouchers we provide.”
Eco Explorers began cruising in 2010 with a PNC Grow Up Great grant. It serves children 3 to 6 years old, primarily in Cleveland’s urban areas. Although not as large a vehicle as NatureTracks, children can gather around the securely-parked vehicle, which offers a shade awning. During inclement weather, programs can be taken inside. Programs include Animal Adaptations, Animal Homes & Habitats, Weather in the Season and Plants and their Parts. Both vehicles operate all year and programs are free.
“During our Weather in the Seasons program, staff members asked the children how could they tell it was fall by looking at the trees,” says Hillsman. “One little boy said it was because the trees were bald headed. I never forgot that.”
Kids aren’t the only ones who have fun while learning at Cleveland Metroparks. The Outdoor Experiences Division offers a wealth of events, bus tours and programs that especially appeal to an adult nature lover.
“Sometimes guests bring their children to park programming, and they don’t always realize that there is a host of adult programming that we offer as well,” says Min Keung, center manager, Brecksville Nature Center. “ We like to keep our adult guests engaged with nature and learning as well.”
Several of this spring’s activities include: Archery for Beginners (Adult); Extreme Hiking; Remains To Be Seen (an exploration of the Berea Quarries); Cast Iron Cooking; and Little Loop of the Buckeye Trail (a presentation about the history and evolution of the 250-mile loop). Add to that classes and adventures offered in different seasons for backpacking, climbing, canoeing, snowshoe and paddleboard and more, and your Northeast Ohio recreation and education card will be filled.
“The wonderful thing is that you can wake up every day in Cleveland and know there is something to do and learn in the Metroparks,” explains Keung. “Many people may not have tried something like bird watching before. We have basic birdwatching programs, and we want to connect with those people who want to learn.”
Nature Centers are good places to start. The Brecksville Nature Center, Canalway Center, North Chagrin Nature Center and Rocky River Nature Center are welcoming, educational and fascinating buildings. The Watershed Stewardship Center in the West Creek Reservation is a good place to learn more about rain gardens and rain chains — just in time for a wet spring, says Keung.
“You can spend hours at a nature center just watching birds and picking up an educational lesson,” adds Zimmerman.
For more information about Cleveland Metroparks’ educational programs, join the park district’s Adventure Club, which includes a monthly newsletter, or visit clevelandmetroparks.com.