Children can become Little Naturalists at the Swaner EcoCenter |

Children can become Little Naturalists at the Swaner EcoCenter

Theresa Fisher helps her daughter Ava Fisher, 3, test the temperature of the snow on the boardwalk at the Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter during their Little Naturalists program Monday morning, December 16, 2019. The theme of the morning's session was math in nature. (Tanzi Propst/Park Record)
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

What: Little Naturalist Story Time

When: 10-11 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 6

Where: The Swaner EcoCenter, 1258 Center Drive at Kimball Junction

Cost: $2 per youth participant


Winter is a unique time for children to learn about nature. They can see animal tracks in the snow as well as learn which animals are active and which are hibernating.

These topics and more are addressed during the cold-season Little Naturalist Story Time classes for ages 3 to 5 that are held at least twice a month from 10-11 a.m. on select Mondays at the Swaner EcoCenter.

There isn’t a set schedule of which Mondays the event will take place, because of holidays, so the best way to learn about upcoming sessions is to visit, said Brianna Cencak, Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter’s youth programs coordinator.

The next session will be held on Jan. 6. Registration is available in advance online or the day of the event. The cost is $2 per participant.

Each session on average accommodates 15 to 20 kids, but there is space for up to 35, Cencak said.

“The goal of Little Naturalist is to provide young kids the opportunity to explore nature and encourages them to be curious and engage with the outdoors,” she said.

These classes tie into the EcoCenter’s mission, which is to “Preserve, Educate and Nurture,” according to Cencak.

“We like to tie in stories and crafts to introduce nature-themed topics each week that will, hopefully, spark their wonder and interest,” she said.

The classes start with a story time where Cencak reads a book that corresponds to the season’s theme to the participants.

“We select the books that align with the variety of the season and what we will see or do out on the preserve,” she said. “Overall the books are exciting and engaging for kids at their ages, and the story time is very interactive. I personally like to pick stories that have a lot of pictures that allow kids to make predictions about what will happen before we turn the pages.”

After the story is done, the group heads out onto the 1,200-acre preserve for some season-appropriate activities, Cencak said.

“We do like to get them outdoors no matter what, so they can utilize some of the things we learned in the book,” she said. “We want to get the kids up and moving. I like to get the kids a chance to engage the outdoors with tools and materials that help them feel like real scientists.”

Some of the tools the kids have access to include binoculars for birdwatching and magnifying classes for scavenger hunts, Cencak said.

“After a little bit of exploration, we’ll regroup and talk about the things the kids have found on the preserve and how they can relate to the book,” she said. “In case the weather is too crazy or the kids aren’t prepared for the outdoors, we do have other activity options.”

After the group explores the preserve, it returns to the EcoCenter for a nature-themed craft that aligns with the book and themes of the week, and Cencak choose crafts that promote extended learning and exploration beyond the Little Naturalist classes.

“During one session, we learned about hibernation, and we made paper bear caves that the kids could take home and use with their own teddy bears and stuffed animals to learn more about the concept of hibernation,” she said.

In addition, the crafts are designed to allow the children to express their creativity and individualities.

“I don’t want their crafts to look like what everyone else made,” she said.

Cencak, who started leading the Little Naturalist sessions seven months ago enjoys seeing adults exploring alongside the children.

“Parents or care-taking adults need to accompany the kids, and not only is that helpful to me, it’s also wonderful to see parents and other adults learning with their kids,” she said. “It’s great to see the connection.”

Cencak also loves seeing how curious children are.

“They are truly interested in just about everything,” she said. “I think it’s pretty crucial that we foster a love and an appreciation for the outdoors in kids. I believe Little Naturalist does just that.”

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