Ask Hannah Gray what she did on her summer vacation and she’ll tell you about her week in Gilwel Park, north of London, which she describes as “a lovely area for children and foxes.”
It wasn’t your typical kick-back vacation.
Instead, Ms. Gray, the head teacher at the Shelter Island Early Learning Center, was immersed in training to lead a “Forest Program” here for 4-year-olds — the first such program on the East End.
On the first day, her trainer took the group out to a forest where many pieces of colored yarn dangled from trees.
“It seems the fairies were here and left us something,” the trainer said.
She asked the participants to choose two pieces of yarn and find a friend who could be a best friend for life. Ms. Gray’s friend held one side of the two strings and twisted the other side while they followed instructions to look into one another’s eyes lovingly.
The friendship bracelets each pair of friends created were worn throughout the training program.
Under the tutelage of Ms. Gray and her assistant teacher, Samantha De Mar, students this year will conduct similar exercises exploring the plant life at Sylvester Manor three days a week and then spend two days outside and inside the school at the Presbyterian Church.
“The program will encourage learning through play-based discovery and problem solving, taking place almost exclusively in nature,” according to Early Learning Center Board President Kelly Surerus.
Ms. Gray is also trained in the Reggio Emilia Approach to learning. The basic idea, according to the founder of the Reggio Emilia preschool teaching method, is that “things about children and for children are only learned from children.”
The learning environment is a key partner with students and teachers and the approach is practiced not only in the pilot Forest Program, but in the morning program for 2- and 3-year-old students.
“Sylvester Manor is so pleased to be working with the Shelter Island Early Childhood Learning Center in their pilot program,” said Stephen Searl, executive director of the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. “It provides yet another way for us to partner with a local organization and bring our mission to life.”
Using the Manor’s grounds for the nature-based program will bring an “environmental ethic” to children at an early age, Mr. Searl added, cultivating the next generation of stewards of the Manor and the Island.
The program is open to 4-year-olds on Shelter Island and from surrounding communities, and will run from 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Early Learning Center’s morning program for 2- and 3-year-old students runs from 8 to 11 a.m. while 4-year-old students can attend preschool classes at Shelter Island School in the morning. Some may opt to participate in the afternoon Forest Program, as well.