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An early introduction to environmental science

By Anna Stevens '10
February 15, 2010

As one preschooler who visited the St. Olaf Natural Lands this fall noted, the fun thing about being outdoors is that there aren’t any doors.

“We were owls and mice,” says Open Door Nursery School parent Heidi Grant, pictured above, about an activity during an outing at the St. Olaf Natural Lands. “The owls would fly and the mice were behind them," she explained. "When the owls turned around, the mice were not supposed to move, so that the owls would not see them.”

Groups of young learners will return to the Hill this month to tour the natural lands and learn about the environment. It’s part of an ongoing collaboration between the college and Northfield’s Open Door Nursery School that aims to give St. Olaf students experience in environmental education while providing the children with an opportunity to learn about nature.

St. Olaf students Bethany Olson ’11 and Geoff Carlisle ’10 have been spending time each month this year teaching 3- to 5-year-olds with the nursery school about the environment. Three times during the course of the year — in October, February, and May — the preschoolers visit Carlisle and Olson on campus to explore the St. Olaf Natural Lands and learn about the wildlife found there. “The kids are inquisitive and excited about everything,” says Carlisle.

The current partnership between St. Olaf and Open Door is in its third year. Katie Handler ’08 started the program in partnership with former curator of the natural lands and Professor Emeritus of Biology Gene Bakko. Handler wrote an environmental education guide for future St. Olaf students to use. In the second year of the program, Becky Kleive ’09 built on Handler’s work and created a curriculum for the year. Current program participants Carlisle and Olson have been utilizing Kleive’s curriculum and revising it as they go.

“This [partnership] gives St. Olaf students the opportunity to do some environmental education and share what they know with young children,” says St. Olaf Natural Lands Curator Kathy Shea. “The experience may help St. Olaf students find other jobs in environmental education and help them determine if they want to continue in environmental education as a career.”

Visiting the natural lands is all about exploration for the preschoolers. Carlisle and Olson have the children look at birds, waterfowl, organisms under rocks or pieces of wood, seeds or flowers, and other aspects of nature. The three visits throughout the year provide a glimpse of how things change through the seasons. The February visit will allow the children to make tracks in the snow and see how the natural lands change in the winter. “It is really refreshing to see young kids enthusiastic and exploring the outdoors,” Olson says.

Coming full circle

This is not the first partnership between St. Olaf and Open Door; the nursery school was once housed in St. Olaf’s Manitou Cottage, which used to be located where Regents Hall now stands. From 1967–72, Manitou Cottage — then known as the Home Management House by students — was home to 3- to 6-year-olds and served as a teaching location for St. Olaf home economics students. Current Open Door teacher Sue Anderson ’72 actually took a home economics class and observed and prepared lesson plans for the nursery school during her time on the Hill. “I feel like I’ve gone full circle,” she says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or