by Robyn Bennett, SKC Early Learning Center Pre-school Teacher, Janet Jolly, SKC Early Learning Center Director, and Dr. Amy Burland, SKC Dean of Education

Children set out on a fishing trip after cooperatively constructing seats on their canoe.

Children are natural scientists and learn through exploring and creating props for play within their environment. Salish Kootenai College (SKC) Early Learning Center extends its learning community from inside walls to the outdoors, allowing children to discover the changes occurring in each season and to be immersed in nature. The American Indian College Fund supports SKC’s Our People’s Timeline project through its Early Childhood Education STEM Initiative by enhancing STEM activities throughout the curriculum.

Open-ended play materials are provided to put children’s imaginations to work and encourage cooperative planning, constructing, and acting out stories. For example, the children use a pile of boards on the playground to build seats across a canoe so that they can set out on a fishing trip. On other days, these same boards turn into bridges, campfires, forts, and ramps, allowing children to explore using their unlimited imaginations.

Children discover the changes in color on the snow that was brought into their classroom on a cold winter day.

Children discover the changes in color on the snow that was brought into their classroom on a cold winter day.

On winter days when temperatures fall too low to take children outside, we bring the outdoors indoors. On one such day the sand and water table was filled with snow. Children were given watercolor paints and water droppers. They explored how colors change when they are mixed, and teachers guided discussion on how the snow melts when it warms up inside and why it doesn’t melt when it is cold outside. Some days the teachers add scoops and objects to build snow structures with the snow in the table.

The SKC Early Learning Center staff plans its outdoor learning environment with as much intention as the indoor spaces. Using open-ended materials in all spaces allows children to use their imaginations to explore and discover the world around them. This simultaneously constructs a deeper understanding of STEM concepts that include relationships among objects based on their size, shape, weight, and placement, and promotes developmental benefits ranging from sensory motor to problem solving and cooperative skills.

Relating one’s own needs to a toy friend who may need help seeing.

The Early Learning Center enrollment includes families from community tribes including the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, Kootenai, Crow, Sioux, Blackfeet, and Northern Cheyenne. Monthly family nights are held that focus on bringing families together to learn, create, and form stronger relationships.

Children drum and sing together.

One family night provided families the opportunity to make their own hand drum to take home. One parent stated, “…to do cultural activities as a family is very rewarding. To learn cultural activities is information we can pass on for generations to come.”

Another parent said, “The drum we completed is respected and is on our wall in the living room. The activity brought my spouse and I together in a friendly environment. Now that drum stays on our wall, reminding us of a memory created at the day care.”

Family night activities were incorporated into the classroom by teachers and SKC Early Childhood Education students to allow children to work as a group and further learn about how a drum is made and explore STEM concepts related to sound.