Mentorship with the Blandford School

What would you say to having part of a school week be focused on learning experiences that can’t end up in a folder to be put away? The reason students are doing their schoolwork isn’t just for a grade or for it to eventually become recycled.  Rather their work is something they experience first-hand: What’s life like as professional? How can I create on my own, or with others? How does what I am doing have real value in the real world?


Through the mentorship time I am learning more about the animals. Through the mentorship time I am learning more about the animals. I have been attracted to learning more about the flying squirrel. I had never seen it out before so I didn’t know what it looked like.  One day as I was helping out, cleaning the cages,I saw him sitting out in a little plastic bowl in his café and I thought he was so cute! I would like to do more research on flying squirrels because I have become very interested in them.

Overall, I love Blandford School  and the Blandford Nature Center.  They are a huge part of my life.  If I could do everything so far all over again, I would.”


Related: Growing Up in These Woods

We will be sharing more about this program throughout the year.  Blandford Nature Center offers a host of opportunities to give our community’s students authentic work that adds to the abundance of ways that they can make the world a better, richer place starting right now.




Nature-based Education | Educator Workshop


nature-based-education Taking student learning outside is a growing trend in education, and Blandford Nature Center is growing opportunities to support nature-based education.  This spring Blandford will be hosting a Nature- based Educator Workshop presented by Rachel Larimore, former Director of Education at Chippewa Nature Center  and founding director of the Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool as well as the author of the book, Establishing a Nature-based Preschool.


The outdoors is the perfect place for children to get a head start in their education.This workshop will provide educators the information and skills to incorporate nature-based concepts into daily routines while maintaining the integrity of their best practice curriculum.

Topics will include:

• Benefits of Nature Play

• Real versus perceived outdoor risks

• Naturalizing outdoor play areas

• Integrating nature into indoor spaces

• Leading effective excursions

• Seasonal activities to incorporate into the classroom (large & small group)

Participants will also observe West Side Christian Nature-based program in action and facilities.

Fee ($400/ $375 for the first 10 early bird sign-ups) includes snacks, lunches, handouts & take-home resources. Certificates and Michigan SCECHs available (pending approval). Each day runs from 8:45am to 4:00pm.

To register click: Nature-based Education Workshop. If you have any questions, contact Janet Staal at (616) 735-6240×23 or

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Land Stewardship

Ten years ago, West Side Christian Middle School science teacher, Brian Dyk, suddenly passed away before his vision of using the school’s five-acre natural area as a learning environment was realized.  The Brian Dyk Nature Preserve struggled with potential habitat and biodiversity loss due to encroaching invasive Buckthorn. Then a community-wide invasive species removal project reignited the vision of that space.

Related: West Side Christian School marks anniversary with environmental project.

Over the past four years, West Side Christian School and Blandford Nature Center have been working in collaboration with teachers and students. Their nearby natural area is now being used as Brian Dyk had envisioned – as a tool to engage students in meaningful, hands-on, nature-based learning.

Related: Scientists, Observers & Caretakers Service Superheros

4 Milestones during the past 4 years

1. Students Work to Restore Native Plants

Each year the West Side Christian School second grade students learn about native seeds and plants during their field trips to Blandford Nature Center.  Using this newfound knowledge, they return to school with the goal of improving biodiversity in their school’s on-site nature preserve.

The resulting day of planting is an amazing opportunity for learning outside! Through the partnership with Blandford Nature Center and a grant from the Wild Ones Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education, West Side Christian School – Official Site students added native plants for butterflies, birds, turtles, and more to their school’s nature preserve. Adult volunteers from Blandford Nature Center and Westend Church, as well as landscaper Dirk Dewitt, joined with the second grade botanists as they planted the native species. The students and volunteers were divided into plant teams. Together they read about each of the plants – finding out about the growing conditions, the planting needs, ways the seeds disperse and what native animals/ insects depend on the plants. Having the adults paired with the students helped the planting to run smoothly and ensured the young botanists were getting the most out of the experience.


This generation is growing to know the value of our native plants in the landscape.

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West Side Christian teacher, Ellen Koster shared, ” We sure have been enjoying these exciting hands-on learning experiences with our students. They read and learn about the native plants. Adding native plants has been instrumental in supplying the students with plant resources to apply their learning towards the stewardship of their schoolyard nature preserve. The students thoroughly enjoy using their hands to help improve the landscape.”

2. The Outdoor Classroom is Now Used Daily

West Side Christian School’s new nature-based preschool utilizes the outdoor spaces located at both West Side Christian School and Blandford Nature Center. In fact, students now spend 25-50% of their time in daily outdoor play. When indoors, nature-based discovery will forms the backbone of the curriculum and drives classroom activities.

Such outdoor learning experiences meet early childhood learning standards while simultaneously meeting children’s need to connect to the natural world. The preschool’s model was influenced by research that demonstrates just how powerful nature can be in shaping a child’s development.

Related:  Moving a Preschool into the Woods and Nature-based Preschool and The Outdoor Classroom

3. Map-making Leads to Continued Invasive Species Education

Now each year during the second grade map making social studies time, the classrooms are empty; the students are not in their places with bright, shiny faces. Where are they? They are on their way to their “sit spots” by a nearby vernal swamp.This is the place where the second grade students learn and demonstrate their understanding of some important map skills (how to read a map, how to determine your position relative to the map, how to follow directions to arrive at a location) and map vocabulary (compass rose, cardinal directions, map key and symbols).

Related: Mapping Invasive Species

After the maps were made they were eager to start to remove the invasive plants.Last year the students  worked in collaboration with Blandford Nature Center  to contribute their volunteer hours to the Stewardship Network October Volunteer Challenge. The students’ efforts counted towards reaching the Stewardship Network’s goal of 1,000 hours.



Related: The Stewardship Network October Volunteer Challenge 2015 Report

4. Ongoing Land Management

Yearly middle school students engage in active land management projects during their exploratory times – opportunities for them to explore and experience classes beyond their “normal” schedule. One option students choose is to venture out to continue to seek out and remove non-native and invasive plants.  These work days consist of Blandford staff and volunteers and middle school students working alongside each other to improve the landscape by removing invasive plants, mulching the trails, and maintaining outdoor classroom spaces.

In Summary

What started as a dream of one science teacher has now grown into a collaborative learning space with active management of the land.  Through the ongoing collaboration between Blandford Nature Center and  West Side Christian, students have opportunities to make real-life connections to their content learning all while making needed improvements to the land.

There are more opportunities to dream in our community. Let’s look at any grassy wasteland as a gold mine of potential for making real-life connections to students’ content learning.  Yet, for one person the work needed to launch a project of this magnitude could seem overwhelming. Collaboration is the key.

Contact Janet Staal (, Blandford Nature Center Environmental Consultant, to see how  Blandford Nature Center unlocks the powerful learning experiences that exist just beyond the classroom door.


Evergreens in the Snow

The air glistened as the sunlight shined through the snow-covered-learning landscape. It was as if we were surrounded with a midst of sparking diamonds. We ventured through the meadow into Blandford’s conifer forest.


Along the way we noticed different tracks, some appeared in a straight line, others looked like animals left their tracks in pairs.   There were “ooohs” and “aahhs” coming from the children as they took in the beauty of the landscape and arrived at the conifer forest.


Each month – no matter the weather – Blandford Nature Center serves as the outdoor classroom for the students at West Side Christian School.

Related: Nature-based Preschool Collaboration

The students enjoyed exploring the area, while wearing snowshoes. While the children were out exploring a few students pointed out tracks, “We think these are deer tracks. They look like their legs left two fingers in the snow.” Other students created a science fiction story about life on the planet, “Hoth.” The uneven terrain made for some great opportunities for gross motor development.

When the “wolves” howled – we gave the signal –it was time to come to the circle. The forest classroom, filled with evergreens, created the context for our discussion about these evergreens and how people enjoy them in their homes at this time of the year. The students shared how they have been looking at the variety and shared their observations – their vocabulary for how these trees look, feel, and smell.

On our way back – following some rabbit tracks – to the ‘Learning Lab” we pretended to be some the animals that use the habitat to survive.  In the warm building the students enjoyed their snacks and a special story about some special trees.  We ended with some fine-motor muscle development – making playdough Christmas trees – and math counting – adding ornaments to our trees.

We would love to have your students out here too! Blandford’s beautiful and complex ecosystems are here so students can learn, engage, explore, enjoy and value nature’s endless wonders.  Blandford offers a variety of field trip experiences.

Also, if you’re interested in developing nature-based, place-based learning experiences like this for your students please contact Janet Staal at

In case you wanted to turn your next Blandford Nature Center visit into a learning adventure….

Here are some tips for some early childhood evergreen learning extension activities: 


  1. STEM INQUIRY from The Preschool Toolbox Blog: Ask your child to build a simple Evergreen tree using only the simple supplies below.
  • Green Playdough
  • Craft Sticks
  • Stars or other decorations (optional)

The kids will ask HOW to build a tree.  Try to answer their questions with open-ended feedback to allow them to use critical thinking tools to solve the problem independently.  It is truly amazing to watch young kids creating, thinking, and learning through play.

  • Read the story, The Night Tree by Eve Bunting
  • Decorate a nearby evergreen with ornaments for the animals. Be on the look out for the animals that come to visit and leave their tracks.
  • Practice writing E’s and C’s in the snow. “E” is for Evergreen and “C” is for conifer.
  • When reading seasonal stories have your child count (tally) all the evergreen trees in the story. Compare two books and see which one had the most.
  • Come out for a visit to Blandford Nature Center, rent snowshoes or any nearby natural area and venture into the landscape with your child as your guide in search of conifers. Have your child use vocabulary to describe the needles: flat and friendly (pine), pokey, square (spruce), stem-lock (hemlock), no needles with cones (“Tammy” Tamarack – she dies her hair orange in the fall and then goes bald in the winter) or scaly (cedars).rent-snowshoes
  • Reinforce the shape identification of the trees – they look like triangles. Also expand color awareness by describing the variation to the shades of green.

Also, keep in mind the upcoming events:


Family Snow Day

January 14, 2017 | Time: 2:00-3:30 pm

Bring your kids out for a fun day in the snow! Take a snowshoe hike out in the woods and practice using these giant shoes. We will hike to a spot where we will let our imaginations take over while we create snow forts or snow creatures depending on your family’s creativity. Snowshoe back to the visitor center where hot chocolate will be provided to warm you up!


Life Long Ago

Anin! This day’s learning adventures made it possible for preschool students to travel back to the time of early Native Americans. As the seasons continue, here’s another peek into the nature-based preschool education that is happening through Blandford Nature Center’s collaboration with West Side Christian School.

Related: Nature-based Preschool and Moving a Preschool into the Woods

The day began with time designated to natural-free play.  It was exciting to see how the hike to the forest led to some spontaneous letter recognition.


“I just spotted this stick shaped like a “Y”


“T” is for Turkey

Nature-Play and Early Literacy

The nature-based preschool model allows the students uninterrupted  time for free-play in the nature.   Blandford’s fort area provided the setting for some imaginative play.
This fort became their house.  This pretend play created the fuel for their own narrative. Together they created a story for their fort, and how they worked together to survive.
Research reveals that this play enhances every aspect of the children’s development and learning.


Learning About Life Long Ago

After their free-play time the students curiosity led them to wonder, “How did people survive in forest long ago?” That set the stage for our time-traveling-learning adventure.”What did the people need?” FOOD quickly came to mind – it  was getting close to snack time! Where did their food come from? People found some of their food in the forest and some of their food even walked.  We imagined that it was time to go hunting.  One student chimed in, “We must be very quiet when when we hunt animals.” We walked quietly through the forest in search of animals.


Four hundred years ago the people called Anishinabek were the dominant culture. The People of the Three Fires, Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Bodawadami (Potawatami), used the resources of the land here to survive and thrive. Today, with the help of traditional tools, the students used their imaginations to picture the daily life of the Anishinabek a long time ago and find out what they could learn from a culture that has lived in Michigan for hundreds of years.


Free Choice

These young anthropologists  were given  some choice time (making “buck-skin” clothes, preparing food, weaving the winter mat, and gathering sticks for fire). This time allowed for more exploration, finding out more about what life was like long ago. Embedded into their their activities were fine motor skill development – activities that support the development of the hand and finger muscles needed to correctly hold and use pencils and scissors.

Story Time

Native American traditions and culture were shared through a story in the wigwam. Through hearing a story the students gain respect for Native American culture. Following the story one boy quickly explained, “I liked hearing that story!”

Eventually our imaginative time travels came to an end, yet these lasting learning experiences will have an impact. This was a great way to lead into their upcoming Thanksgiving celebration.  When families gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and students hear stories about Thanksgiving long ago, these experiences will come to mind. Like the Wampanoag at Plymouth, thousands of Native American nations and communities across the continent have their own histories and cultures.  When students learn about the Native People of this region they learn about an integral part of the American story.


We would love to have your students out here too! Blandford’s beautiful and complex ecosystems are here so students can learn, engage, explore, enjoy and value nature’s endless wonders.  Blandford offers a variety of field trip experiences.

Also, if you’re interested in developing nature-based, place-based learning experiences like this for your students please contact Janet Staal at


Leaves for Play and Learning

Beyond the typical leaf rubbing, leaves create the catalyst for exploring science, art and literacy in early childhood education.

Blandford’s recent visit to Godfrey Lee Public Schools served as a tool to collaborate and increase the teachers and students use of their nearby natural area – their living laboratory.

Related: Urban Outdoor Learning and Hands-on Science Just Outside the Door: Students Explore New Learning Center.


With the help of the East Lee High School students and Physical education teacher, Julie Swanson, and funding awarded by the Women Who Care of Kent County,  the Godfrey Lee Early Childhood Center has made some amazing improvements to their outdoor learning space. 

To discover more about the natural world around us, students were encouraged to be observant. Everyone has five special tools with them wherever they go that they use to explore and understand the world around them—their five senses!

We began with our walk, under the power lines and along the Plaster Creek.  When entering the natural area one student excitedly exclaimed, “Oh WOW! We’re going into the woods!”


On the hike the students were encouraged to search for evidence that the season is changing, using their five senses.  The color change and falling leaves were quickly identified by the students. They were challenged to collect their favorite leaf. “How can we choose just one, they’re are too many to choose from?!”


Together we explored the leaves using their sense organs: eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, nose for smelling, hands for touching and cautioned about the tongues for tasting. It’s important to educate that the sense of taste is one that we need to be cautious of when we learn outside.


“I notice my leaf has a hole in it?” As teachers we modeled wondering what could have caused the hole in the leaf?  One student chimed in, “I think the leaf was eaten by something.”  Already at a young age, these kindergartners are using their sense organs to find out more about the role leaves play in helping organisms survive in the natural world.


After a few minutes of siting and exploring the leaves, the students needed to get their whole bodies involved.


Even though this outdoor exploration was a short twenty minutes, it sure created some natural motivation for their upcoming science unit. The children left wanting more time to play and discover.  That’s a great way to end the school day! Can you guess what the children wanted to do when they got home?  They were challenged to find their own neighborhood leaves and bring some back to school tomorrow.  Wouldn’t every  teacher love to receive a bouquet of leaves from their students?

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Key Resources

  • For more activities, see Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood guide from Project Learning Tree.  The guide will help educators lead exciting explorations and discoveries about our environment and includes over 130 educational experiences which integrate investigations of nature with art, literature, math, music, and movement.
  • Also, Growing Up WILD: Exploring Nature with Young Learners Activity Guide offers a wide range of activities and experiences for children ages 3-7, Growing Up WILD provides an early foundation for developing positive impressions about the natural world and lifelong social and academic skills. Written especially for early childhood educators, this guide features 27 field-tested, hands-on, nature-based activities in a full-color 11” x 17” activity guide. Includes crafts, art projects, music, conservation activities, reading and math connections and much more. Involves social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive domains to help foster learning and development in all areas. Correlated to the National Association for the Education of Young Children

(In case you would like to receive these resource for you and you school community, Blandford Nature Center has trained Project Learning Tree and Growing Up Wild facilitators on staff. Email for more details.)

What activities or books would you recommend?

Please share in the comments below.


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.