Nature Friends Preschool Program

During the 2018-2019 school year, Wildrock piloted the Nature Friends Preschool Program, a brand new year-long program dedicated to bringing free play and a nature experience to the preschoolers in the Charlottesville City Schools. 

Through a Bama Works grant and with support from Preschool Director Sheila Sparks, Wildrock was able to offer a nature play program for all ten pre-kindergarten classes of the Charlottesville City Schools, serving approximately 180 students. Given that nature connection is vitally important for healthy child development, the overriding goal of the program was to increase children’s comfort in nature and to support their innate curiosity in the natural world. 

The program included two field trips to Wildrock, one in the fall and one in the spring, to enjoy an immersive nature experience and free play on our playscape. In addition to the two field trips, we visited each of the six schools four times throughout the year, bringing loose parts play and sensory play to green spaces in the school yards not typically used for play.  

Our four onsite visits revolved around the theme The Animals Around Us! We paid particular attention to animal homes and the elements animals need in order to survive and thrive in their habitats. Because our six-session program spanned the school year, we were able to observe the seasonal changes in our own environment and discuss how these seasonal changes affect the animals living around us.

We know that preschoolers thrive in structured and predictable routines. For this reason, each of our onsite visits and field trips followed a predictable format in which small groups of students rotated among three guided activities:

  • A hands-on, hands-in SENSORY bin station.

  • A HABITAT craft that we will make and leave at the school for students to revisit after the program.

  • An open-ended FREE PLAY station that will invite students to work together as they play, imagine, construct, and move throughout a natural environment.

In addition to the activities provided by Wildrock, the Nature Friends Preschool Program also included two visits from The Green Grannies of Charlottesville. This group of volunteer environmental activists joined us for both the first and fourth visits to each school, performing an original song about local wildlife for and with the kids.


The Nature Friends Preschool Program was a fantastic success! We were able to engage students in free, unstructured play in nature; reinforce concepts of stewardship and environmental protection; explore underutilized school green spaces; and celebrate getting our hands dirty!

We are looking forward to expanding the program to include additional schools and classes in the future. For older students, we have developed the Nature Discovery Play Trail program. We bring nature play and team-building activities to any available green space at your school, inviting students to work and play together in nature. Details and fees are available upon request.

Be sure to follow Wildrock on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to stay informed about our latest programs for schools, families, community groups, and businesses!

Save the Pollinators

I don’t want to alarm you, but our planet is in crisis. (You were probably already in a state of alarm over this, weren’t you?)

We have islands of plastics floating in our oceans, carbon emissions warming our planet faster than we could have predicted, and species in dramatic states of decline. In February of 2019, scientists, for the very first time, officially cited climate change as the reason for the extinction of a mammal--a small rodent that lived on one island off the coast of Australia. But at even greater danger than mammals, are insects.

According to the Earth Day Network, 18% of all insect species will be lost by the year 2100 if the current rate of warming (2°C) continues. If the planet were to warm by 3.2°C, that number would rise to 49%.

That’s a lot of bugs.

Why should we care? Because insects are pollinators. Pollinators transfer pollen from one plant to another, which is the process through which seeds are produced, allowing future generations of the plant to grow. 

No pollinators, no plants. No plants? BIG problems. Plants produce oxygen, provide homes for animals, control the water supply, and regulate the earth’s climate. If THAT doesn’t worry you, how about this: seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which provide up to 90% of the world’s nutrition, rely on insects, specifically bees, for pollination. 

So what can we do to help Protect the Pollinator Population? 

It’s an anxiety-causing problem without a fast and easy solution. I’m not a commercial farmer, or a lawmaker, or a scientist. I’m just one person with a little home garden, so what good can I really do? Well, there are some things...

  • We must speak up to our local, state, and federal legislators. We must let the people who represent us know that this is an issue their constituents care about. Your vote is your voice!

  • We must stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We must let chemical companies know that we will not use their harmful products.

  • We must protect and restore wild pollinator habitats.

That last one is my favorite...and my kids’ favorite, too. (It’s hard to get them excited about calling their Delegate, but playing outside? YES! Sign them up!) Here are some ideas for the gardens around your homes or classrooms:

  • First of all: Commit to organic gardening. Ditch the chemical pesticides and read labels on plants purchased at big box home and garden stores carefully!

  • Plant native species.

    • Do a little research or visit a local nursery to find out which plants are native to your region. These plants form the foundation of an ideal habitat for pollinators in your area by providing them with the food and shelter they need to thrive. 

  • Invite pollinators to stay awhile in your garden!

    • Most bee species native to North American don’t form hives and instead make their nests in nooks and crannies in decaying wood or sandy soil. Support your local bees by installing a native bee house in your garden. You can shop online or make your own, like this one made by the preschoolers of Charlottesville!


We CAN make a difference for the pollinators in our communities. And if lots of people do lots of small things, it can add up to big changes for our planet.

Sensory Play!

At Wildrock, Sensory Play is woven into every part of our playscape. Whether kids are splashing in the stream, rolling down a hill, or making mud pies in the Nature Kitchen, they are engaging their senses through nature play. Wildrock's three urban outreach programs -- Pop Up Play, Nature Friends preschool program, and Nature Play Lab Program -- have been designed to bring sensory play out of Wildrock and into the community. In each of these programs, we use sensory bins, which give indoor spaces and urban outdoor play spaces the kind of rich sensory stimulation that naturally occurs in nature play. 


Our urban outreach programs use natural materials to increase children’s access to the beauty and wonder in nature. As is true with all of our exhibits, we hope to inspire our visitors to see how rich nature play experiences can be recreated inexpensively and easily at home. 


When I was a stay-at-home mom to three preschool aged kiddos, I had what I called my “back pocket activities.” When we couldn’t go outside, my most foolproof and trusty back pocket activity was to pull out a sensory bin.


Sensory play is any kind of activity that stimulates the senses. Sensory play isn’t just fun and games, though. Play, after all, is the work of childhood. Children learn best through physical, sensory experience. When kids can see, smell, touch, and hear something, the learning is more meaningful, making sensory play an extremely effective early childhood education practice.  


What made sensory play a back pocket activity for me as a mom, though, was the calm it brought into our home. Sifting rice through your fingers or raking patterns into a tray of sand are exceptionally calming and meditative practices. Even my “wild child” second-born, who existed in a near constant state of motion, would settle down his physical body when provided with a bin of visually enticing sensory materials. While calming down and experiencing the tactile stimulation, he was also developing fine motor skills, grip strength, grasp control, and sustained attention.


I first became aware of the power of sensory play when my oldest child was a toddler. He was, and is, a highly sensitive child. He did not like the physical sensation of getting “messy” and tactile discrepancies bothered him greatly. He was the toddler who ate “finger foods” with a fork, the preschooler who needed his socks readjusted a dozen times before they felt right in his sneakers. 

I introduced him to sensory play as a way for him to experience different tactile sensations in a safe and non-threatening way in order to build his comfort level and, hopefully, teach him to respond with patience, instead of anxiety, to the seams in his socks or the tags in his shirt.

When my second child was born and sensory play was already a part of our weekly, if not daily, routine, I noticed how, even from the very beginning, he used sensory materials completely differently than his brother. My older son would mostly scoop and pour the rice or sand using containers and tools, and only sometimes submerge his entire hand in the material. My younger child was a full-body sensory kid. He would stand in the bin, giggling at the funny feeling of rice between his toes.


When kiddo number three came along, she took the middle course; sometimes opting for an immersive sensory experience, sometimes for a more methodical approach.


I watched as each of my kids participated in sensory play differently, each taking what they needed from the experience...whether it was careful, measured, scientific exploration or silly, giggly, tickly sensory stimulation.  This open-ended nature of sensory play is what makes it such a rich and inviting component of early childhood education.

Sensory play is a great equalizer in a classroom setting because there is no expectation or desired result. All children can be successful in sensory play regardless of their language or cognitive abilities. Sensory play is non-verbal by nature in that it requires little dialogue between child and play facilitator. Kids, you will notice, tend to know just what to do when presented with a sensory bin. Although it requires little communication, sensory play invites rich language development. Have you listened to your students as they engage in sensory play? They are using descriptive language but also story-telling language. They are narrating their actions and describing imaginative scenarios. They are conversing and sharing and acting out scripts with their peers.

Because sensory play can invite such rich communication between the child and the adult play facilitator, sensory bins (sand trays in particular) are widely used in therapeutic settings to help children work through past traumas. Many children are unable to verbalize their feelings and emotions but are able to express his or her feelings or experiences through play, allowing a therapist access to past traumas in a child’s life.

Sensory play can contribute to other aspects of emotional well-being, as well. Studies have shown that when patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia engage in sensory play and stimulation, agitation and restlessness decrease and the quality and duration of sleep improves.

Most early childhood classrooms have dedicated sensory play areas. If yours does not, consider introducing sensory play with a simple, manageable sensory bin. The one I used at home, and the ones we bring to our Wildrock Nature Friends preschool programs, are Rubbermaid under-the-bed storage containers. They are generous in size, comfortably allowing two to three kids at a time space to play, but are small enough to be lifted on to a table or other elevated surface to allow children to stand while they play. These bins come with a lid, which will help with “material control” when the bin is not in use.


Sensory Material Inspiration!

*Rice (Here’s a tutorial for making Rainbow Rice)
*Dried pasta
*Dried beans
Kinetic or “Magic” Sand
Water beads
Pom poms
Shredded paper
Easter basket grass

*Something to consider: Certain cultures, and certain families, find it inappropriate to play with food material. Before using dried beans, pasta, or rice for play, consider your families and their values. A letter requesting feedback on using food materials for play might be a good idea!

BEST OF ALL -- Natural materials!

Acorns, seeds, seed pods, pinecones


From Trash to Unexpected Treasure

My dad grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey in the 1960s. He and his four brothers shared a bedroom in a small apartment above a butcher shop. They spent a lot of time outdoors (because FIVE BOYS in a two-bedroom apartment!) but not exactly in nature. They were alley kids. When they played “stickball,” the alley version of the sandlot, it was with a discarded shard of lumber, not an actual stick. Nature play does not come naturally to my dad. But imaginative play does. Those five boys growing up in a small alley in Jersey City would become experts in using their imaginations and creativity to keep themselves occupied with whatever it was they could find. They were masters of turning trash into treasure.

I did not find it unusual to receive a random text from my dad a few weeks ago that read: “Found two big bowls on the side of the road! For Wildrock?” My dad is not one to leave a potentially useful item on the side of the road, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had pulled over to retrieve them. After doing his due diligence to find the rightful owners (by posting on Facebook and, a week after his find, he delivered the two big bowls to my house. They are HUGE. My mom was thrilled to get them out of her living room.

My kids immediately saw the play value in these two new treasures. My 7-year old turned it into a nest, she was the mama bird.


My 9-year old turned it into a Pokéball, he was the Pokémon.


My 11-year old sat in it, cross-legged, as we spun him around in circles. Then, my brother, Big Uncle Mike, got into the play: With one kid sitting in each bowl, he turned them into weights that he slid across the carpet as he did modified push-ups for a killer ab workout. The bowls became “bathtubs” and silly hats and “rings of rocks” for Gentoo penguin nests. After a day of play, the kids were sorry to see them go, but knew the bowls were off for more fun and adventures with the kids at Wildrock.

Since they were incorporated into Wildrock’s Pop Up Play, these two giant bowls have been put to use by toddlers and preschoolers and elementary-aged kiddos from across Charlottesville and Albemarle County. The bowls have been seats and slides and step stools. They have been drums, thrones, turtle shells, and “mixing bowls for giants.”


I am continually impressed and inspired by the imaginations of kids. A simple item, a discarded piece of trash, has turned into an incredible treasure of play.

How would your children use a giant bowl in their play? Have you found any other unexpected play treasures that would have otherwise been trash?

What's in a Name?

It’s the most important word to a young child. It is often the first word she will recognize in print and that he will learn to write. Learning it is a springboard for preschool literacy learning and an integral first step towards other types of learning as well.

There is no singular word in any language more important to a child than her Name.

Names are particularly special words for little ones because they are so familiar and because they belong to us. Often children will discover and point to the first letter of their name in text and respond egocentrically: “Look! It says me! It’s my name!” This early recognition that print has meaning leads directly to a child’s development of the concept of word, phonemic awareness, and literacy.

Parents and preschool teachers know the importance of Names, and Madeleine L’Engle would agree. Naming and “un-Naming” (taking away an individual’s sense of self), is a central theme in her novel A Wind in the Door. In the story, evil beings called Echthroi are threatening universal harmony by destroying individuals’ identities.

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

When something or someone is given a name, it is given meaning. Children understand this implicitly and it is why a central schema in early childhood is Identifying and Classification. In the endless stream of Little Kid Questions, even before “But why?,” comes “What is that?” Knowing the name of something helps us to form a relationship with it. Naming elevates a thing into something that is worth knowing...something worth caring about.

Friends, it’s time we talk about the importance of Naming Nature.

Here’s something that adults who spend time with children will find completely unsurprising: Cambridge researchers surveyed four- to 11-year old children in Britain in a study seeking to ascertain “children’s knowledge of nature.” The children were shown photo cards and asked to identify the species pictured on each card. Children aged 8 and over correctly identified less than 50% of the wildlife species (such as “oak tree” or “badger”). Conversely, these same children identified Pokémon “species” (such as “Bulbasaur” or “Chimchar”) with 80% accuracy!

Clearly, the issue at hand is not whether or not today’s children have the capacity to learn a broad vocabulary of Names, it is whether or not they have the curiosity to. So how do we inspire our Pokémon-curious kiddos to have the same wont for wonder about the natural world?

We go outside. We play, we explore, and we (the grownups) express our own curiosity about the world. And, together, we learn. It’s not just the children, after all, who are experiencing this environmental shift...this disconnection from nature.

In a 2017 survey by UK-based Wildlife Trusts, a third of adults were unable to identify a common barn owl, three-quarters of those surveyed could not identify an ash tree, and two-thirds of respondents reported feeling as though they had “lost touch with nature.”

Our lives have taken us out of nature and onto pavement. When we are spending less time in a given environment, it stands to reason that our knowledge base of that space would decrease as well. Anthropologist Beth Povinelli calls this knowledge base a “literacy of nature.” We are losing our natural literacy because of the structural changes our society has undergone over the past 40 years. Seldom do children roam freely and unsupervised in the woods and fields of our communities. City-living, traffic growth, over-structured schedules, parental fear, and the lack of green space have stilted wild play and the nature knowledge that comes with it.

It should come as no surprise that our nature literacy is diminishing when we can see for ourselves that nature itself is disappearing.

We may not have the power to prevent them from paving paradise for a parking lot, but we can instill a curiosity and wonder about the natural world in children that can last a lifetime.

Walk around your school yard or home. See how many trees, flowers, or plants you can name. If you can’t identify something, get curious! Discover its Name! There are apps that allow you to take a photo of the plant species and compare it to a database to help you identify it. Do this with the kids! Then, incorporate Nature Names into your daily vocabulary. When gathering after recess, rather than lining up at the sidewalk or along the wall, pick a tree: “Okay, kids, line up at the great big Oak tree!” or “Let’s sit by the azaleas and we’ll read a story.” Point out identifying features of plants so the children, too, can begin to learn how to name them. Bring leaves, seed pods, and twigs into the classroom and, along with photo cards and botany books, set up a Nature Identification station.

As these words become a part of your routine, they will also become a part of your kids’ Nature Literacy. As their lexicon grows, so too will their relationship with their environment. Having a positive relationship, or a connection, to nature is good for the mind, body, and soul. Not only that, but it’s good for nature itself...because once you know something by name, it becomes something worth knowing about...something worth caring for…something worth protecting.

Be a Nature Namer! (These can help!)

Check out these plant identification apps...

  • PlantSnap Plant Identification ($3.99)

  • Garden Answers Plant ID (FREE)

  • iPlant (FREE)

  • Picture This Plant Identifier (FREE)

And if you have some room on your bookshelf, these are two of my favorites. (They’re GORGEOUS!)