Guest Reflection by Woodside Elementary Kindergarten Teacher Peter Dargatz
Some of my earliest and favorite childhood memories are my experiences with nature at Underwood Creek, catching frogs at Menominee River Parkway, and rock hunting along the shores of Kohler-Andrae State Park. Nature has always been a place of peace and passion in my life. No matter what else was going on in life, nature was a constant. Living in Wisconsin means amazing seasonal variability and wonderful access to nature. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. As I grew up, I knew that nature would continue to be something I enjoyed personally. I never expected it to be something I could enjoy professionally. Fortunately, I can now do both. I am ecstatic to be able to continue sharing my passion and love for the natural world with my family and my students.
Teacher burnout is a real thing. I love educating children, but after years of teaching, I couldn’t help but feel that change was needed. I saw my students excelling academically but falling short in other areas. The change I needed was not a new job, but a new direction. That direction led me back to my love: nature. Initially, my rejuvenation began with the creation of the Tyke Hike program in my volunteer work for the Ice Age Trail’s Waukesha/Milwaukee County Chapter. These monthly hikes along a segment of the trail focused on more unstructured exploration and nature play combined with some service learning and emergent learning opportunities. Seeing how excited children were at being able to observe, explore, and play in nature inspired me to find a way to bring that enthusiasm to my classroom. I found that way with the nature kindergarten concept. Being in a public school, there were many potential hurdles. However, with tremendous support, access to land, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and enthusiasm, it soon became a reality. My students receive daily interactions with nature with a nature-infused curriculum bursting with project-based, personalized, and play-based experiences.
The Tyke Hike program and my nature kindergarten classroom are extremely important to my family. Besides the substantial support and assistance with the responsibilities these activities require, my family is my inspiration for my continued development as a teacher and nature steward. My daughters inspire me to create a classroom community that would make them proud. My wife inspires me to follow my dreams and try new things. We constantly share our own nature experiences and making new nature memories together. My wife and I want our girls to experience and celebrate nature so that they will appreciate and honor it on their own.
Whether it be visiting my outdoor classroom, walking through the nature preserve at the end of our block, or visiting one of our many favorite nature spots throughout the area, nature is and will always be an essential element of our lives. We don’t learn about nature. We learn from and in it.
In my three years as a nature kindergarten teacher, I have worked to revamp and rejuvenate my instructional practices by enhancing my curriculum with opportunities for my students to dig into nature, both figuratively and literally. We engage in a diversified set of activities aimed at creating a well-rounded whole-child experience. Place-based learning is crucial to this. I want my students to more deeply understand their community and more importantly, their place and role in that community. While there are a variety of specific activities and experiences we use to deepen our connection to the natural world, the first and far most valuable resource is time. Time to explore, observe, and play. Every day. Mother Nature is a much better teacher than I could ever be so giving her control allows the students to see their world with a different perspective.
This different perspective aims to create and instill a passion for appreciation and love of the land. I want my students to experience the land, understand their place in it, and preserve it. For example, students learn about invasive species. With garlic mustard being easy to find and just as easy to pull out, it is a natural choice to use as a learning tool. We learn about what garlic mustard is, what it does, and why getting rid of it will be helpful for our land. Once we learn that, our daily interactions with nature include garlic mustard picking. It becomes so motivating for kids. I have received many correspondences from parents stating how their child spent hours at home and in the neighborhood pulling out plant after plant. Similarly, to diversify the land, we work on prairie restoration. Using old donated tarps, the students choose a spot to kill off the bland and homogeneous grasses. Later on, they remove the tarp, move it to a new location, and plant prairie plants in that spot. They also distribute native seeds and study different plans to purchase. Additionally, the students do a variety of things to help our animal friends. Whether it be building bird feeders or setting up winter dens, we learn about nature by immersing ourselves in it.
Read a great article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Peter and his classes HERE