Macon school using nature to nurture learning

One school in Macon is trying to keep its students from catching “nature deficit disorder.”

This year, St. Andrews Montessori Preschool started an outdoor education program to get children who are used to playing indoors back in touch with nature. It follows a national trend made popular by author Richard Louv’s book “Last Child In the Woods.”

When students there see a wooden paddle with mosquito stickers hanging on their classroom door, they know it’s their day to use the outdoor classroom.

They can go outside to look for insects on the school’s nature trail, dig for fossils or play at a weather station.

The outside class has about 40 activity centers that teach everything from living skills and botany to geology and zoology.

“It’s very important in today’s society,” preschool director Karen Mangham said. “They’re cooped up in their homes, and too many are plugged into TV. We have a national obesity epidemic because children aren’t allowed to work and play outside.”

On a patio, 5-year-old Bhargav Gudapati, who is just learning to read, matches pictures of 12 flowers to their names.

“It took only one minute,” he says, chuckling, after identifying a sweet william, iris and daisy.

The preschool has always had some form of outdoor activity for the children, but after adding a roof to the school’s patio, administrators and teachers implemented a full-blown outdoor education program.

In another corner of the outdoor classroom, Maci Lefholz, wearing her Uggs and a red scarf around her sweater, saws one end of a twig at a woodworking station.

“I like to cut sticks,” she said.

Another girl shucks corn to feed to the squirrels.

On the nature trail, a circular path in the woods behind the school, Mia Pendergast rakes up leaves into a huge pile.

“She just told me she made a pile of 1,810 leaves,” said her mother, Shannon Pendergast, who had just stopped in for a minute. “I think (the outdoor class) affects their mood. It calms them.”

The outdoor classroom is designed for preschoolers ages 3 to 6 to develop independence, fine motor coordination, scientific discovery, socialization and cognitive and language skills, as well as a sense of wonder about the natural world, Mangum said.

The school, on the corner of Forsyth and Bass roads, serves about 70 children.

Even the littlest students, 18 months to 3 years old, who learn in a building next door to the preschool, use outdoor play, making bird food or playing in the garden.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.