Nature-based Preschool

Nature-based preschools are a growing trend in education, and Blandford Nature Center has begun to support nature-based education through collaborating with area preschools.

What is a Nature-based preschool?

“Nature-based schools put nature at the heart of their curriculum and use nature to support both early childhood development and environmental education,” as defined by Natural Start advisors Dr. Patti Bailie and Ken Finch (Green Hearts Institute for Nature).

It’s exciting to be playing a role in helping West Side Christian School  Move a Preschool into the Woods.This new nature-based preschool utilizes outdoor spaces located at both West Side Christian School and Blandford Nature Center. In fact, students spend 25-50% of their time in daily outdoor play. When indoors, nature-based discovery forms the backbone of the curriculum and drives classroom activities.

Here’s a glimpse into their recent experiential learning that happened at Blandford Nature Center.

The day began in the Nature Nook – Blandford’s playscape – in which the students engaged in play-based learning.
After singing some praise songs and circle time the students ventured out into the learning landscape. We explored the meadow in search of the variety of insects – creatures that have a head, thorax (chest), abdomen, six legs, two antenna and compound eyes. We used nets to catch, observe, count and release the insects.

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The preschoolers put their insect identification skills to good use, “Is it an insect?” They discovered that Praying Mantises can turn their heads and observed a variety of other insects too.
The preschool time concluded with some center time and a story in Blandford’s Learning Lab.
 Through their outdoor learning adventures the children’s natural curiosity became activated. “I wonder if beetles will eat spiders?” We’re going to be reading more to find out!
“Blandford’s expertise and passion for outdoor learning has made them such a valuable partner in this new venture!” shares West Side Christian’s Nature-based Preschool Teacher Katelyn VerWoert.  “It’s been a joy to see my students experience the benefits of learning outdoors.”
As a result of this collaboration, we’re witnessing how learning of many kinds (problem-solving, social development, awareness, curiosity, questioning, literacy, resilience, gross motor, fine motor and more) unfolds with ease in these outdoor moments. This all happens with a spontaneous excitement through the exploration that I am sure will resonate with the students for a lifetime.


We’ll be sharing more about these outdoor adventures as the seasons continue. If nature-based preschool education is something that you would be interested in exploring, feel free to contact

You can also see how West Side Christian School collaborates with Blandford Nature Center through their blog.



Growing a School Garden


A rainy day is the perfect time for planting a school garden.  It’s as if the retractable classroom ceiling  opened up and the rain came in.  The garden came alive with activity in the wet weather.


The Ground Cherry plant pictured here will soon be growing food for the students at Godfrey Lee Early Childhood Center.

Through collaboration this year, Blandford has had the opportunity to work with two area schools to start their school gardens.  Godfrey Lee Public Schools and West Side Christian School both have space designated for growing garden plants.

Months ago, the while snow was falling outside, the schools shared their goals for their garden spaces. During the cold winter, I met with Aaron Snippe, Blandford’s Farm Manager,  to help plan and supply the schools with their starter plant needs.

Later when the appropriate time for planting arrived, each school’s starter plants were ready to go.


Any school could look beyond their walls to creating this powerful space for student learning.

It’s easy to dig in to growing a garden classroom, here’s some advice (from Texas A & M University Aggie Horticulture):

    • Seek help from at least one colleague, parent or community member who is into organic gardening, even if you’re an experienced gardener. Having extra hands really helps
    • Evaluate your site
      • does it get a minimum of six hours of full sun per day?
      • is there easy access to water?
      • is it close enough to classrooms to get used? (out of sight could become out of mind)
      • can it be protected from marauding visitors of the two-legged and four-legged varieties?
    • Test the soil texture, drainage, and composition (this can be part of a science lesson)
  • Plan/design your garden according to your site and your goals (be sure to use some plants that will produce before the summer break and lots that will be ready when the students return)
    • do you want a separate plot or raised bed for each class?
    • do you want to include garden plots for community members?
    • do you want a greenhouse or cold frame to extend your growing season?
    • will you include a compost area?
    • will you need a tool shed?
    • do you want to incorporate an outdoor classroom area and/or shade structure?

Once a plan is in place, the school planting days become an exciting event for participating students.  At their school sites the older students were paired with younger students for planting day; working together, they observed, recorded observations and planted their plant.


Some challenges that may arise when creating school gardens can be in regards to the contradiction between school calendars and the agricultural calendar.  A frequently asked question is, “What will happen when the school is out for the summer?”


 By understanding specific plant characteristics and growing patterns, certain plants may be used at certain times in order to have successful harvests.  For example, there are early spring varieties, such as lettuce, kale, radishes, and peas, which could be planted and harvested during spring months due to their quick growing habits, while other plants, such as winter squash and pumpkins, would be ready for schools to harvest in the fall after their summer break.


Photo Credit:  Michelle Terrell, West Side Christian School Garden Parent Volunteer


Another commonly wondered issue is who will tend the garden during the summer months?  Both Godfrey Lee Public School and West Side Christian School offer summer programming, in which the garden is cared for by the schools’ students throughout the summer.  However, if your school does not have that option, it is simple to enlist the help of some school neighbors or parents. A great way to attract them into caring for the garden is to offer a portion of the harvest to them to enjoy in return for their help and greatly appreciated labor.

Also important to note, it’s okay if the garden plants eventually die, that’s a learning lesson too (the circle of life).

School gardens provide a rich enhancement to a child’s learning by offering a wide variety of developmental benefits.  They are a wonderful way to use the schoolyard as a classroom, which connects students to the natural world and the true source of their food, as well as teaches students valuable gardening and agriculture concepts and skills.  These skills can integrate with several subjects students are already learning, such as math, science, art, health or physical education, and social studies, as well as adhere to several educational goals, including personal and social responsibility.

I’ll be sharing more about what this looks like, so stay tuned!

In the next post, I’ll share some research behind all the benefits – beyond the obvious benefit of growing great food – in case you or your school community needs some more convincing to grow a garden classroom.

We’d love to hear from you! Does your school have a garden? What are the benefits and challenges?  Imagine what the world would be like if every school had a growing garden classroom!

Meet Blandford’s First Animal Ambassador

What if more student writing assignments could be used to help our community?  The opportunities are out there, it just takes connecting the real-world need to the students. Blandford Nature Center has a wealth of opportunity, opportunities for students to use their writing skills as a form of service to their community and support a cause they believe in.

This past winter Blandford received a stack of “Thank you” letters from an area school – we sure do love receiving them.Tucked in the pile was this sweet letter. If you read on, you’ll see that Lincoln wondered, “I wish I could know what animal was rescued first.”  This presented a great opportunity to ask Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford’s Founder, and hear the story.

first animal

West Side Christian School sixth grader jumped at the opportunity to put her weekly writing assignment to good use.  She joined a group of other students that came out to  Blandford Nature Center to help tell more of the story.   This is the fourth story in a series that they helped write.

Mary Jane Interview

Blandford’s First Animal, Winks

Written by Lauren

Let me tell you a story most people don’t know. It all starts out in 1968 when Blandford Nature Center had no animals. According to Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford Nature Center’s Founder, most nature centers (at the time) had no animals, and Blandford had no plans to.

rail road tracks.png

One day three little boys were playing out by some railroad tracks a mile from the nature center. The boys found a beaten up baby screech owl. The boys were upset and brought the owl to Blandford. The boys asked Mary Jane if she could fix the owl. Of course she could not turn them away! The owl was a mess.  The nature center needed somewhere to keep the owl, so they got a small cage for it. The staff worked to care for its injuries, discovering that one eye was badly damaged.  The owl was blind in one eye, but it could fly very well. After hard thinking the Blandford staff decided to name the owl Winks.


Blandford hoped that Winks would live, and it did. Each day the staff would open Wink’s cage, and Winks would fly out. Ironically Winks would fly to a sign that said, “Don’t handle the animals unless a staff member is with you.” Winks would often be seen on that sign.  The staff never knew where they would find Winks. One day Winks was hiding in a Christmas tree! Another day Winks was hiding in a coffee cup!

It must have been meant to be that an owl became the original logo of the nature center. An  artist had designed Blandford’s logo with a screech owl.  Mary Jane wanted the owl as the symbol because of the phrase, “Wise Old Owl.” It was after the logo had been made that Winks came to find a home at the nature center. The owl logo design may have changed over the years, and Winks has come and gone, but the owl symbol lives on. Blandford has an important job to do, to educate our community to be wise about how we care for the place where owls and other animals need to live.

origional logo

In conclusion, I wanted to share that I really enjoyed that I could learn about something that I never knew about Blandford.   This experience motivated me to improve as a writer, real people hopefully will read this.  Mary Jane Dockeray has some great stories to share and I am glad that I could help.

lauren interview1

Mary Jane Dockeray pictured with Lauren


All Because of One Rock

If you had to choose just a few objects to showcase Blandford Nature Center’s history—  a handful considering the millions of things to be found outside —you might be tempted to skip over the rocks.  Although a rock,  you could say, is what played a key role in shaping Blandford’s history.

Every object tells a story.  Some just haven’t been written yet.  Each found object presents the perfect real-life storytelling opportunity for students to put their literacy education and writing skills to use.

“When you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

From the Gravel Pits to Grand Rapids Public Museum to Blandford Nature Center; All Because of One Rock

Written by Olivia Alcumbrack, Sixth Grade Student at West Side Christian School

Mary Jane Dockeray, the founder of Blandford Nature Center, has loved rocks from the start. Her explanation for loving rocks so much is, “I must have hit my head on a rock when I was little.” Now she loves rocks.

mary jane with rock

Mary Jane with a Quartz stone in her hand. 

When she was little (kindergarten), she used to walk with her aunt – who was a teacher – on a little road she lived on.  Back then there weren’t many paved roads, so her road was gravel.  One day as she was walking with her aunt young Mary Jane saw a rock that caught her eye.  As she picked it up she asked her aunt, “What is this?”

gravel road

Her aunt replied, “Quartz.”

The rock was all white with sparkles. Now Mary Jane was curious, “Do all rocks have names?”

Her aunt replied, “Yes!”

She looked around in awe.  She wanted to know more because kindergartners are curious, “What is a person who studies rocks?”

Her aunt said with a smile, “Geologists.”

So Mary Jane decided that when she was older she wanted to become a geologist.  Her wish came true.  She became a geologist and began working at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. As part of her work with the museum she would frequently take school groups out to the place where she grew up.

Related: Growing Up in These Woods

As time went on things began to change, and she saw stakes in the ground. This started her on a journey to find out who owned the land with the hope that the land could be preserved for a natural learning space.  The owner, Mr.Blandford,  was thrilled with the idea of a nature center and donated the first ten acres. Mary Jane soon saw that the visiting kids needed an outhouse. Mary Jane was now tasked with overseeing the new building.

mary jane with rock1

Mary Jane points out the photo of Mr. and Mrs. Blandford

Related: The Dream

The Grand Rapids Museum Association decided to make the nature building its new project.  Mary Jane took pictures and drew drawings for the architect. The construction began in 1968.  Beautiful rocks were placed at the base and half way up the building. The rocks came from the local gravel pits. The building has over forty-four tons of rocks!


One day as Mary Jane was investigating the rocks on the wall she discovered one dark rock.  She poked it and smelled it. It turned out to be a Petroleum limestone.  You can still find it today.


I really enjoyed this opportunity to meet Mary Jane Dockeray and write about part of her life.  I like rocks, she REALLY likes rocks, and SHE ROCKS! She is so nice. She loves the outdoors and it’s great to learn that she has lived her life to help more people explore and learn more about the great outdoors.


Notice the rock that Mary Jane has for a necklace?








The Dream

Have you ever wondered how Blandford Nature Center began?  How did this nature center get started?  Recently, a group of sixth graders put their weekly writing assignment to good use.  They came out to Blandford Nature Center to help tell more of the story.   This is the second story in a series that they helped write.

interviewers in front of blandford

The following is derived from an interview that Naomi, a sixth grader at West Side Christian School, had with Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford’s founder.

“The neighborhood children called it Collins Woods. It was a wondrous place to play any time of the year.  Delicate wildflowers carpeted the ground in the spring, blooming before the forest of great hardwood trees shut out the sunshine. What a pleasant spot to visit on a hot day in summer.  Brandywine Creek cooled the feet while we searched for crayfish and minnows.  Fallen logs provided bridges to lead us to nearby fields of sun loving summer flowers, lazy butterflies and buzzing creatures.  Fall brought blazing color to the trees and scurrying animals getting ready for winter. Steep slopes gave us sledding thrills during the winter.”

fall forest2


Collins Woods had an important part in Mary Jane Dockeray’s childhood.  She lived right across the street from the woods.  She grew to have a career in the natural sciences.  After college she went to work in 1949 as the nature teacher at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.   Whenever teachers requested a real outdoor adventure for the children, she knew just the place to go, Collins Woods.  They would get off the bus and walk through a corn field to get to the woods.


kids with mary jane

One day as she walking along she saw stakes sticking out of the ground.   Mary Jane discovered that Collin Woods had been part of a farm purchased by Victor Blandford. His family and friends enjoyed area, but he had begun to sell pieces of the land to others so they could build houses.  Mary Jane shared how she would take groups of students to the woods.  Mr. Blandford was not mad at all and he wanted her to walk through the woods whenever she wanted.

walking along the steam

The Museum director, Frank DuMond, and Mary Jane discussed preserving some land as a natural area for the community.  Mr. and Mrs. Blandford were delighted with the idea. In June 1964 they gave the museum ten acres in one of the most beautiful parts of the woods.  Mary Jane was tasked to make a nature center! Mr. DuMond told her, “Why don’t you dream a bit?”  Mary Jane replied back, “That is a very dangerous thing to do.”

visitor center

The money to build the center did not come fast at first. Four years had passed. It was 1968 when all the money was raised for the nature center.   Mary Jane’s dream came true. The city now has a place where children could have a real outdoor adventure.  Thanks to the many people that gave the needed support, others now share the dream.




naomi and mary jane

Naomi pictured with Mary Jane Dockeray

Naomi shared her own thoughts as a conclusion.  “I love that I can have my own experiences learning out in these woods, surveying what animals live here and finding out more about the natural world.  Now that the land has been preserved, any child can come out to explore.”


Growing Up in These Woods

Blandford has some exciting storytelling opportunities.  As we collaborate with area schools, there are numerous opportunities for students to put their developing writing skills to good use.  Monica VanWienen, 6th grade teacher at West Side Christian School, had her sixth graders interview people for one of their weekly writing assignments.   Some of the budding writers were eager to interview Mary Jane Dockeray, Blandford’s founder; she still comes here every Wednesday morning. This is the first in a series of stories. It’s exciting to share more of Blandford’s story!


Growing Up in These Woods

Written by Kyle Veurink

young girl

Young Mary Jane Dockeray

I had the opportunity to go interview Mary Jane Dockeray, the founder of Blandford Nature Center, on the Northwest side of Grand Rapids. I asked her, “What was it like to be a child and grow up in the woods of Blandford Nature Center?” She said, “When I was a kid, I rode my bike to Collins farm where I played in the part of the woods where Blandford Nature Center is today. I loved to play in the creek and get ALL dirty and wet. I loved to hunt for frogs, bugs, salamanders and snakes.  My mom hated it when I did this.  It was nice to live where I lived because I lived on a farm.  My dad was a farmer and bookkeeper.  My dad liked it when I had my hair cut short and got dirty. It was special to be able to come to the woods and do what I wanted.”

Mary Jane Dockeray shared, “Growing up we didn’t have blue jeans, so I wore any pants that I could find. I wore farmerettes, which is a combination of boots and pant legs.  I wore a dress to school, that came off as soon as I got home.  When winter came, farmerettes were too thin, so I wore thick leather boots and riding britches.”

She came out to the woods mostly in the summer, spring and fall, but not in the winter.  In the winter, she stayed close to home. She said, “There were not very many houses where I grew up, maybe two or three. I lived wild and free.” Mary Jane Dockeray said, “One reason that I loved, and still love the woods, is there is a lot of fresh air and that it is open.” She remembers venturing out to a certain spot where there was dip by the creek.  “There was a fallen tree that we always slid on our fannies to get across.”


Brandywine Creek

Some things have changed since Mary Jane Dockeray was young. “When I was a kid, the stream was a trout stream that led to the Grand River. It is not a trout stream any more.” The pipe that carries processed water from Lake Michigan changed that.

kyle photo

I really liked interviewing Mary Jane Dockeray and learning about her love for nature.  I am thankful that she helped to find a way to preserve this land and make Blandford Nature Center.




Former BEEP Now Teacher

Each school has great potential to engage in powerful learning experiences.  There have been some innovative ideas generated at Godfrey Lee Public Schools Early Childhood Center. I had asked Debbie Schuitema if she would be willing to share more to the story.

By Debbie Schuitema

I have lived in the city for most of my life but my family was always doing things outdoors (camping, sledding, building snow forts, etc.).  From 1988-1990 my family moved to a missionary compound in Monrovia, Liberia where my dad helped start and run a high school.  We had no TV so we spent the majority of our time outdoors exploring the ocean and the rainforest. This experience cultivated a lifelong curiosity and love for the outdoors as well as appreciation for diversity.

Photo from the 6th Grade BEEP’s Camping Trip

A few years after we came back  I had the unique opportunity to attend the Grand Rapids Public School Blandford 6th program .  (Blandford Environmental Education Program – BEEP) It was and still is my favorite year of school!  Most everything I know about trees, wildflowers, birds, and maple syrup came from that experience and has stuck with me – more than any other class I’ve taken.  I loved trail guiding younger children, so much so, that I subjected my younger siblings, cousins and babysitters to this knowledge every time we were outside together.  (I hope they all remember how to identify Sassafras and enjoy the fruit loopy taste of the leaves).  I remember crying really hard at the end of the year because I did not want it to be over.


In college I requested to be placed at either Zoo School or Blandford because I wanted to be a part of something like that someday.  My placement was at the Zoo School. I got to work with the master himself, Dennis Kretschman.  I learned so much from him.   (He reminds me of that disputed quote from St. Francis of Assisi “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words”  – just replace the beginning with Teach, and if necessary, use words).  It was incredible to watch that 6th grade experience from the adult/teacher perspective while still holding the student memories in my mind.
After graduating my career in education took some twists and turns in both public and private schools, mostly in middle school math and expanding to a coaching role at all grade levels k-12. Even though I was not teaching outdoor education, I always tried to keep exploration a part of teaching and learning because I believe we learn by doing. I want kids to have that same type of authentic learning experience that I had. Throughout my career it is noticeable that kids are spending less and less time out doors. Even recess time has decreased in order to meet instructional demands.
Research shows all of the unintended consequences of this, and we as educators can help turn this around with the right support and resources.  last child in the woods
Currently I am the EL Math Coach at the Godfrey Lee Early Childhood Center – the setting of what I like to call “The perfect storm.” (Storms don’t have to be viewed as a bad thing – they are vital to world).  There were ideas brewing among myself and some other teachers simultaneously.  We talked about the various needs for getting kids outside.  Someone read “The Last Child in the Woods.” I had been reading a lot about Forest Kindergartens in thinking about my own kids (using the outdoors as the setting for authentic learning experiences).  A teacher chimed in with  insights from her Reggio-Emilia background.  We all want to get the learning to “stick” or connect in a way worksheets can not.
Then all of a sudden we had an opportunity to have Blandford Nature Center help us rethink how to utilize our resources outdoors!  I have not seen educators this excited in my 12 years of teaching.
Our first day of planning we got an outdoor classroom set up with stumps.  That afternoon a class came out to use it.   A few more classes used it the very next day.  We’ve had classes go out sporadically to use the place to read, write, observe, etc. Our staff helped create and plant a native species garden with seeds generously donated by Blandford Nature Center.
Here is some of what we are hoping to use the space for but the kids may change our path:
  • Host a parent information night to bring them through the space, get feedback, and get some to volunteer.
  • Partner with HS/MS classes to have “Nature Buddies” for various activities (fort building, pen pals, reading and researching together, older kids teaching younger and vice versa)
  • Get a group of 20-25 kids outside everyday starting in March for various learning experiences to help us build a curriculum to use the following year.
  • Each grade level has a class with specific days with Blandford – we hope other classrooms at that grade level will go out and use the same lessons and we’ll keep building from there.
  • Tap our Maple tree, collect and measure sap (several lessons can be created from this)
  • Plant more trees on the property (White Pine is a priority)
  • Study Plaster Creek and learn about what effect pollutants have on the environment
  • Develop “Nature Maps” of the school grounds to display inside.
  • Get and build a shed to store supplies and STEM activities.
  • Collect boots, gloves, hats etc. to provide comfortable outdoor experiences if needed (and to give to any parents that want to join for a day)

Teachers, high school students, Blandford staff and volunteers came together to create an “Enchanted Forest” for the students’ future fort building projects.


This is not the end but just the beginning!