Episode 217 – Young children are now taught to focus more on academic performance and less on play – this is a problem. In this episode, Peter Dargatz, nature kindergarten teacher, shares his passion for nature-based programs and his journey in creating one at the public school where he works. We talk about why it’s important to slow down to catch up and how to go back to the basics to set our next generation up for success.
They just go out there and they just be kids. And you let them be kids and you can see that, “I can figure out a way to fit the curriculum into what they want,” rather than, “I’m trying to squeeze them into this prescribed, scripted curriculum that I might be required to teach.”
Peter, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hello, hello! Nice to see you, sir.
We’re delighted to have on the show today Peter Dargatz. He’s a nature kindergarten teacher out of Sussex, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee. Great to have you on the show, Peter. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, your background and how you got into being so passionate about teaching in nature.
Excellent. Well, great, thanks again for having me. My name is Peter Dargatz. And like Ron said, I am a nature kindergarten teacher in a public school just outside Milwaukee. I’ve been in education, my upcoming school year will be the 15th year. And I’ve spent the last eight in kindergarten – it was fourth grade before then.
And the last six years I’ve developed a nature kindergarten program where, in our public school, we basically have a beautiful parcel of land behind our school that had been unused and really underutilized. And I saw a change that I needed to do in my classroom philosophy and decided to utilize that space.
And [I] have designed a number of outdoor learning spaces in that area and had a really well-recognized nature kindergarten program where we collaborate with a local nature center; we have community collaborations; and we spend a little bit of every day out in our nature.
Cool. So, how does that work, practically? Is it [that] you spend some time in a classroom and some time out in nature? How does that work?
Well, it certainly depends on the time of year and obviously things like weather. We do spend a simple part of every day in our nature environment. We kind of have a model that we start and end each day with some natural play. So, the kids will come in and do our normal, basic attendance, choose their lunch, do those simple things.
And then we head right out to the trail. And they spend the first usually half-an-hour to 45 minutes in child-led play, discovery, exploration. And we like to come back and talk about it, have our morning meeting and then do some of our more traditional lessons in our outdoor environment.
And we do go inside the classroom for lunch. And lots of times will also return to the outdoors for the afternoon and then return in back inside for specials. And then [we] usually finish our day back out on the trail.
And we go out for different parts of the year, throughout the seasons. Here in Wisconsin, we joke that we have all four seasons sometimes in the same day. But we are out there all the time. And a lot of people ask me, “How does that work in winter, where it gets pretty cold and subzero and it’s chilly for the kids?” Well, when the kids are out there every day and they’re exposed to it from the beginning of the year, when it does get cold., they don’t really even notice it that much.
And there’s really no such thing as bad weather. It’s just bad preparation and bad clothing. So, for the kids, it’s just like a regular classroom to them. And being in kindergarten, it’s kind of something that they grow into and they get used to. And it just becomes a part of what their educational experience is.
Yeah, cool. And I think, like you said, as long as you’re prepared for it and they know they’re going outside and have the appropriate clothing and everything, it’s certainly manageable.
And certainly we’ve talked about nature-based learning, getting outdoors and getting in nature more in the Preschool Podcast. But why do you think you’ve made this transition from where a lot of early-childhood educators are, where they understand the importance and are spending a bit more time out in nature and outdoors, to the point where you’ve made it such a core part of your programing in what you do and spending so much time outdoor with the children? Where is that passion coming from? What’s inspiring that?
Well, basically it all kind of started… there was a situation that occurred just about seven years ago that really jumpstarted this evolution of my educational experience. And I spent in a regular classroom… I came to kindergarten, like I said, eight years ago.
And kindergarten now, in the contemporary times, is a lot different than kindergarten was when I was in kindergarten. And I’ll be 40 next year. So, I’m talking 35 years ago where we played and we did art projects and there is naptime and his finger paints and all those things that are associated with kindergarten like play and choice time and those things.
And when I started [teaching] kindergarten, those had been gone. And I didn’t know any better. It was just the way it was when I started kindergarten. And now the housekeeping items were out of the classrooms; the free-choice toys were kind of out of the classroom. It was much more academic-based.
And for a few years of kindergarten that’s what I did. And I was successful at that; I didn’t have any issues with that. And my kids were doing well and my kids were happy.
And one year in particular, like I said, about seven years ago, I had a student who was doing very well. And I mean, I probably stunted her – she could have done so much more and so well without me. She just came in with that enthusiasm, that energy and the intellect of just… it was just mind-boggling, the things she could do. She came in with so much knowledge about math, reading, writing, spelling. I mean, I was trying to challenge her anyway I [could].
And I kind of took her as my little apprentice. And everything I would throw at her, she was just knocking out of the ballpark. And it was just awesome, she was just doing so well academically, on the standardized tests. She was just doing these amazing things.
And then as we neared the end of the school year and we had pretty much wrapped up our curricular responsibilities, I did decide, “Let’s have some fun these last few days in a week or so.” And I brought back out some of the things that had been just collecting dust in my closet. There was games and play-dough and just toys and things like that.
And while I’m watching all these other kids, just their personalities just jump alive and come alive in ways that I hadn’t seen because I hadn’t given them that time, space and opportunity to do so, I saw her kind of act like a turtle and she kind of shelled up. She struggled with problem solving; she struggled with critical thinking. She didn’t know how to initiate play; she struggled with asking for help when she needed games.
And these were all things that she struggled with throughout the year. But I was so impressed and so engaged in her academic development, I had ignored them. And this also kind of coincided with the time where my first daughter – I now have three children – but my daughter was born that same spring. And I came to the realization that I would not want my child to be in a room like mine.
And that was a real heart-wrenching moment where I had to say, “I’m at a crossroads here. What do I do? I’m not doing what I need to do for these kids to be students and be contributors to society. I’m doing very well in terms of teaching them the skills to do well on their worksheets and their tests,” but they were not prepared for the things that life was going to throw at them.
So, I had to decide what I wanted to do. And I mulled leaving education. And it just came to me that everyone knew that I’m supposed to work with kids like. And I joke that I have the attention span and sometimes intellect and vocabulary of a first-grader so kindergarten is where I need to be. And I knew that I had to figure out a way that I could reach these kids in a different way and utilize my joy and love for teaching kids at the kindergarten level.
So, I did my research and just kind of went old-school and just looked at the simple concept of play, something that had kind of been thrown away in the kindergarten level because there just wasn’t time. You couldn’t reach all the academic skills that you needed to reach if you were just wasting your time with play.
And I said, “Well, you know what? I’m going to give it a shot.” And I spent a year researching just basic play and bringing play back in the classroom and having play days and play time and designating opportunities in the classroom. And in that research, I came across some articles, just web-searching and random browsing the Internet about nature and play.
And in kindergarten I saw that there was a movement that had been around for a long time in Europe where they took kindergartners outside and they explored and did these things in nature. I said, “Well, you know what? I’ve got this land behind our school that is just there. Like, it’s worth a shot. Let me see what I can do with it.”
And I was able to convince – and it actually didn’t take too much convincing. I think our district was ripe for a change in perspective. And it was great to see my leadership, my administration jump on board when I gave them kind of my philosophy, my ideas, how I thought this would work.
And I attacked it from a curricular perspective, knowing that academics was such a high expectation in our district. And it was what kind of the community wanted. And it was just something that’s… all education’s more and more academic-based, even at the lower levels. That’s kind of how attacked it, as, “Going outside is actually going to improve the academic skills and development that they’ll need to be successful.”
And next thing you know, we were out on the trail. I did it as a pilot, essentially, one year. I took my little lawnmower out on the trail and did a little design and talked to some people much more smarter than me about nature-based education and trail development and how I could build a trail that would really utilize this land in the best way. And our land was pristine and primed for a learning environment.
And since then, we’ve added all sorts of learning spaces out there – a wonderful natural-play area. We’ve got collaboration’s all over the place. We have an all-school collaboration with a local nature center where they come to our school and we go to their school. So, all grade levels have at least some access to some nature-based learning.
I lead a district-led Family Nature Club where other schools who may not have that land are able to come to our land and other spots in our district and even other local nature centers and local natural areas. And we do some of the things that I do with my kindergartners at an expanded level.
And it’s just seeing how something as simple as going outside and sometimes people get scared that going outside has to be a huge, big ordeal where we have to change everything and we have to get all these supplies and get all this philosophy changed. And yeah, are there things in that realm that you might need to do? Are certain supplies beneficial? Of course.
But ultimately you can just go for a hike outside or go sit outside in the grass and read a book, grab a notebook and do some drawing, free-writing outside. And they’ll gain so many more skills by doing something that simple.
And so I’ve been able to really enjoy this transformation I’ve done in my own philosophy, in my own educational experience. It’s something that ongoing. And that’s the beauty of being a lifelong learner – once you mow the trail, you’re not done; you’re just starting.
And every year I try to find different ways to incorporate new ideas, deepen the connections to nature, deepen the connections to the curriculum. And I’m just having a ball enjoying seeing how this program is developing and how other people are jumping on board. And it’s just a really fun thing to watch.
And watching it also start to blossom and kind of rise up throughout this country is really an exciting thing to see. And obviously, in the times of coronavirus, I think utilizing everyone’s outdoor space and utilizing their own nature-based education is more important than ever.
Yeah, it’s funny because I even remember from when I was in kindergarten many years ago, as well. And certainly we didn’t get to go outside very often. But boy, when the teacher said we could go side for something, people were pretty darn excited, myself included. I can remember just how great it would feel to get out of the classroom and get outside, even if it was just for a half an hour to do exactly what we would be doing in the classroom but outside. It was a nice change. So, certainly that resonated for me personally, too.
Exactly. And it’s fun to see how having my students that I work with have it just become a part of their experience; how, as I like to call it, the “positive pressure” to influence other teachers at upper grade levels. The kids are speaking up for the benefits of it themselves. And their families are connecting to, “Hey, this is a really great experience that other people can try.”
While it’s obviously something that I’m passionate about, I always joke that I don’t know. I learn more every day. I love nature but I’m not an expert in nature. I’m an expert with working with kids and trying to figure out what works, makes them tick and educating them. And nature is just the greatest assistant teacher, even though I often feel like I’m the assistant teacher and Mother Nature is the leader.
But it’s just great to be out there because it just opens up so many more possibilities and so many more ideas and creative and innovation that just come to you just by sitting and watching and observing the kids in their element. Because for them, they do what they do naturally. I mean, pardon the “naturally” pun, but they just go out there and they just be kids.
And you let them be kids and you can see that, “I can figure out a way to fit the curriculum into what they want,” rather than, “I’m trying to squeeze them into this prescribed, scripted curriculum that I might be required to teach.”
It’s just great to see that complete reversal and how they have the ownership, they have the understanding, they deepen that connection to the land and to their own learning. And they become stewards for the future, which is a beautiful thing, that they are in charge of their own learning and they know that they can make a change in their own community simply by being a part of something in the outdoor environment.
So, given your experiences and your passion, my role as the host of the Preschool Podcast and with our listeners – many of whom are working in early-childhood education – a lot of us get that there’s science and there’s research behind nature play. A lot of folks like yourself have experienced firsthand seeing the benefits of nature play.
But, to your point, lots of times sort of at the kindergarten, grade one level, in particular, it’s a sort of a more academic model. And I think part of that is because it’s the simplest way to assess or measure learning development, whereas nature play, it’s kind of like one of these things – like, we all know it’s great. But how do you take that and assess whether the learning is better than in the classroom or show families or others that this is a great thing?
And well, one of the things I try to instill with my families is trust because there is that misnomer and kind of misconception that if they’re not doing those things that they’ve kind of been engrained to do in the way that our educational system has become, they’re missing out on opportunities.
So, I definitely ask a lot of trust of my parents and families and administration to begin the year saying, you know what? I know this is going to look a little different but my kids will get to where they need to be. And in my personal opinion, they’ll exceed.
In my data collection and our analysis of all the assessments and academic skills and with my kids compared to other classrooms who are more traditional either in my school or across the district, you wouldn’t be able to tell any difference based on those test scores. But I can tell the difference because I think, “Well, they are doing just as well academically. They’re also a getting deeper connection and deeper experiences with the skills that they’ll need later on.”
It’s almost a little bit selfless because the kids, while I don’t get to see that maybe direct connection to their academic achievement right away, I know – and teachers in the upper grades have given me some information that they can tell which kids went through nature kindergarten in their class because they’re more resilient; they’re more flexible; they have a deeper understanding of things; they’re more inquisitive.
So, one of the other things that I also try to battle is this whole concept of going back to school. I know here in Wisconsin there’s a big push for, “We need to get kids back face-to-face. They need to be in the classroom.” And trust me, I don’t know any teacher that doesn’t want to go back to school and work with the kids.
But there has to be some safety involved: safety for the students, safety for the families, safety for the staff and their families. But one of the things people have heard that push the need for kids to go back – besides their emotional development – they need those social skills.
Well, I don’t think people quite have an understanding of going back and what schools are going to look like and what schools and kids are going to be asked to do. I find that that might be just as more emotionally challenging and socially frustrating than it is staying at home.
But that push is because people think and feel that their kids are falling behind and that we need to catch up. And when I hear that, my mind just blows up inside. And I just want to yell from the top of a mountain, like, “What race are we in where these kids need to catch up? Where are they falling behind?”
I mean, you can compare our education from here in in Wisconsin to other states, this country to other countries. And I mean, you can look at any data points and [say that], “We’re ahead in this; we’re behind in that. Oh, we have more of this; we have less than that.”
And when did we lose track of [the fact] that we’re not in this for data points, we’re not in this for being first? We’re in this for empowering each child to be the best child they can be [as a] whole child: socially, emotionally, physically and, yes, academically.
And when I see that people [say], “We need to catch up, we need to catch up, we need to catch up,” my solution to catching up is to slow down. And I know that seems very oxymoronic, that to get ahead, you want to slow down. But I think it’s so crucial to just go back to the basics and give children the opportunity to play, give them the opportunity to explore, to socially connect to each other without adult intervention.
And I’m not saying you just sit back there with your bottle of water and you’re just sitting on the couch or sitting at your teacher desk and just letting things happen about you. You’re in there; you’re involved, too. But you’re involved more in observation and guidance instead of being the director of everything and letting the educational process slow.
And that is such a problematic thing for many educators because of the pressure that we have to fulfill these academic requirements. And by many people’s personas in the educational field, we kind of control freaks. And we want to be in charge of things and we want it to go our way. I mean, we’re taught in our grad school programs and it’s on these lesson plan sheets that this is the way it has to go. Well, if it goes off script, then something’s wrong.
And in fact, kind of going off trail is the beauty of it. That’s where the real learning happens. That’s where things can not fall in line the way you think they’re going to go but go in a totally different direction that you didn’t expect and actually have it be a better experience for everyone because of that.
So, I always try to encourage families I that talk to and people that I connect with who are worried about, “They’ve got to get back to school, they’re going to fall behind.” They’re not going to fall behind. Academically, they will be fine. Academically, they will get the skills that they need to get.
This is the time to really focus on social and emotional wellness and connecting with your peers in a safe manner and really building up those skills that are needed, whether it’s enthusiasm, resiliency, flexibility, executive functioning, so many things that kids need and don’t necessarily have the opportunities to be successful because of the pressure that is inadvertently – or intentionally sometimes – or unintentionally put on them to be academically successful and leaving all these other elements of their development behind.
So, it’s a struggle to kind of communicate with that when people are so worried about, “What are they going to miss? What are they going to… ?” You know what? They’re going to be fine. They will get where they need to be if they’re safe. If we put them in an unsafe environment where people are going to get sick… I mean, that I think is going to be emotionally traumatic and more scarring than anything being a little extra home for a few extra months might be.
But I mean, it’s a real challenge right now. And education is kind of at a crossroads. And it’s really interesting to see where this all goes. If there’s any positives out of this pandemic, I am excited to see that if we go back to face-to-face, as our district is planning, I plan on essentially living in our outdoor classroom as much as possible.
And I see a lot more kind of enthusiasm or interest from other teachers who may have been a little more hesitant to say, “You know what? Outside, it’s going to be a safer environment”. The kids are going to be a little probably happier, a little more excited about being at school. And they’re with their friends. And that sort of environment, whether they’re socially distanced as far away from each other without the ability to play with toys and read their books in our current classroom because of all the safety precautions and guidelines that were expected.
So, it’s a real odd time in education right now. But I’m optimistic about the opportunities. And I have many sayings, I always try to be “opportunity over obstacle”. To me, this is a chance to try something new and be okay with that it’s not going to be perfect, but we can grow from it, we can learn from it. And in the end, we can make education a better experience for all parties involved.
Something that’s an interesting part of this conversation for me, too, that I’ve had before on the Podcast, is around the changing needs in the talent workforce. And so gone are the days where basic memorization is valuable anymore because we have all the resources at our fingertips when we just go to [the internet]. And most of the things that we do are supported by computers in some way or another.
And so this idea of, “To catch up, we actually need to slow down,” you can extrapolate that to adults as well that are trying to multitask, is a big issue right now. A lot of people have trouble focusing in being creative, which I think are probably a lot of the things that nature play helps you to learn how to do at a young age and is so important now in the workforce where the problems that humans need to solve are becoming more complicated because we have computers to do the simple calculations.
Exactly, exactly. It’s amazing that there is this pressure that’s put on. And, memorization, as you said, that was such a huge part of kind of my childhood. I remember staying up to cram and get those facts memorized. And now with the simple click of a button or a simple talking to a phone, these kids can come up with the answers to things.
So, that deepening their skill set and finding other ways, it’s all about memories over memorization. Like, who cares if they don’t know specific [things]? I mean, we want them to learn skills, we want them to be independent. But do they really need to know and learn the same skills in the same way that we did?
Well, the way our world and society is changing, I think, no. They need to learn a lot of different ways. They need to learn how to problem solve and be creative and be innovative and be collaborative. And schools are trying lots of different ways to include that into their skill sets, whether it’s the four C’s of community, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity.
And “genius hour” where they give kids time to just focus on their interests and learn. Now, I mean, there’s the skills that it’s almost becoming like an extra special thing that kids can earn, almost like a reward. “You get your genius time, you get your time to be creative,” when in fact that should be at the core of what we work with kids on it. And that should be what leads the education, not something that’s a nice little fun throw-in. “Oh, look what we’re doing for these kids.” No, that should be the focus.
And moving forward, we need to focus on deepening those skill sets so those kids can be successful in the classroom, but more importantly, successful in life and being able to leave, wherever they decide to go at the end of their educational experience, whether it’s at the end of high school, whether it’s trade school, whether it’s college or whatever it is that they’re successful and can not only find employment, but being an important and productive part of society instead of just knowing all these facts that don’t necessarily better themselves or better the world around them.
Absolutely. Peter, if people would like to get in touch with you to learn more about your work or find out more about it, where can they go?
Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I am always willing to talk to anyone about my experiences, especially those in a public school that say, “I’m not sure if I could do it. I don’t know how it’s possible.” Trust me, if I can do it, anybody can do it.
You’re more than welcome to contact me on social media. You can find me on Facebook. Or you can find me on Twitter: my handle is @TykeHiker. I hike with kids all the time, hence @TykeHiker. You’re certainly welcome to email me: P_Dargatz@Yahoo.com. I’m more than willing to reach out in any of those ways.
But also if you’re willing to wait just over a year, in October of 2021 I’ve got a professional book coming out – tentatively titled Teaching Off Trail – that goes through a lot of kind of what I discussed today in more detail on how I turned my classroom into what it is and transformed my philosophy. And that’s again, Teaching Off Trail, coming out in October of 2021 through Redleaf Press. So, I’m more than happy to talk to anyone and excited to share my story.
Very cool. Peter, thanks so much for sharing your passion about nature play. These conversations get me excited about just how much more we can do and how much opportunity there is there. I really appreciate you sharing that with our audience here today!
Of course, thank you so much. Yeah, this is the time. Now more than ever, this is the time to utilize what’s best for kids and really turn our educational system around and focus on what’s most important. So, let’s do it together!