Faith Lutheran is a small, faith-based preschool in West Palm Beach, Florida. With about 150 students, it has been teaching preschoolers in West Palm Beach since 1962—but in 2009, teacher Pilar Tucker started to notice something strange about the teaching manual.
“Every month we would have basic themes based on the seasons—in September it was apples, in October it was falling leaves, in January it was snow. But in Florida we don’t have any of those things!” says Tucker. “I was teaching and it was weird telling children that leaves change color, when they look out the window, and no, they don’t.”
At the same time, Tucker was getting her Master’s degree in education, and was required to take an environmental education class that took her to the local Wakodahatchee wetlands. There, she saw great blue herons, purple gallinules, egrets, and woodstorks—she learned about birds and plants she had never heard of. “I had lived here for 20 years and never been to the wetlands; that class opened my eyes,” she says.
A fire was sparked in Tucker, and she began doing environmental research projects with her professor. That’s when she came across NAAEE, and its Guidelines for Excellence for Early Childhood Environmental Education. The guidelines outline research-based best practices, and had been shaped by feedback from hundreds of practitioners and scholars. Pilar wondered, "how many of her preschoolers knew about local animals like the blue herons and the purple gallinules? How would her school hold up against the Guidelines for Excellence?"
Tucker was inspired to set up a committee meeting with teachers, parents, administrators, and board members. The goal was to measure their school against the NAAEE guidelines, and its companion rating scale. The group rated themselves against NAAEE’s 6 Key Guidelines, from Guideline One: Crafting a Philosophy, to Guideline Six: Educator Preparation. “If the goal was environmental excellence—we were far from it!” says Tucker, who noted that their highest score was a 4.3, out of a possible 7.0, for sparking curiosity in children. But the exercise made it clear to everyone in the room that some big changes toward a more local, environmentally-focused curriculum would be relatively easy.
“We teach a lot about God’s creation, but nowhere in our mission did it say anything about that,” Tucker says. The school’s philosophy was “Teaching the love of Jesus, teaching the love of learning.” After performing an audit using NAAEE’s guidelines, the committee crafted a new philosophy statement: “Teaching the love of Jesus, teaching the love of learning, and teaching respect for all of God’s creations.”
After the philosophy was changed, the school did a teacher training program through Project Wild to create a curriculum based on Florida wildlife. Tucker used her photos from her trips to the wetlands to create matching games to teach the names of blue herons and scarlet ibises, and monthly themes were switched from pine trees to palm trees, and from polar bears to alligators. Now the children learn about the ibises—birds that the children see all the time in their communities—and how the birds get food out of the soil with their long beaks.
The next step for Pilar, who went on to become the school’s assistant director, was to address NAAEE's Guideline 5, Spaces and Places, to get the kids outside more. The school created a “mud kitchen” on site for kids to play with sand and water. They arranged fieldtrips to the many local nature centers, where children could visit estuaries and hold sea urchins, or to the local Marine Life Center where they saw rehabilitated sea turtles that had been injured by boats and trash.
Meeting the guidelines is a work in progress, but Tucker’s proudest accomplishment to date is the school’s container garden with lettuce, beans, kale, carrots, green onions, and celery, which went in last year. The children planted the seeds, and now water the plants and check them every day. And, of course, they get to taste their crops when they’re ready. “They are more aware of where it’s coming from—not the grocery store,” says Tucker.
When Faith Lutheran Preschool went through the accreditation process last year, it was applauded for the cognitive, socio-emotional, and spiritual benefits of its curriculum changes through the NAAEE guidelines. “Our team leader just loved our new philosophy and said it was great,” said Tucker. “’Respect for all God’s creation’—now that’s our little catch phrase, so to speak.”