Introducing Our Forest Toddlers- An Interview with Leiana

This fall, we celebrated the launch of our brand new Forest Toddler program here at Parker. Forest Toddlers is designed for children ages 18-36 months and their caregivers, giving both the opportunity to connect, explore, and learn together outdoors on our beautiful, 77-acre campus. There was no question that the right teacher to pioneer this new program was our talented and much-loved lower school science teacher, Leiana Hawkins. Please read on to learn more about our Forest Toddler program, in Leiana’s own words…
What attracted you to creating this new program for toddlers?
“I think that anything I can do where joy and learning overlap really appeals to me. And I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than being outside with really young children and their families. It is complete joy intersecting with learning at the same time, and I love it.”
What does a typical morning in the toddler program look like?
The program is really simple, and that is by design. I try very hard not to make it a show or a performance. It seems to me that so many adults do not know how to let young children lead. That is a critical component of this program for me, and I think the families who join us every week really value that.
As for the program itself, we begin every morning by gathering together on the big field. We sing songs and rhymes that change through the seasons. We repeat everything twice, and the songs repeat throughout the session, simply because there is so much learning that comes from the routine and the repetition. It is really wonderful to see the toddlers start to sing along and do the hand motions as they come week after week.
After our circle time, we hike somewhere on the campus. We typically explore various outdoor classroom spaces or hike around the pond. Usually, we end up at the creek, where we have set up a home base for our outdoor space. Then, we PLAY! Occasionally, I will provide a few play props, but for the most part, nature is really the biggest hit. We have things like rakes, buckets, and sidewalk chalk, but it’s always the garter snake, or stacking rocks, or exploring the stream current that makes them the most excited. We then end our time with a closing circle and walk out together.”
What is your favorite thing about working with toddlers?
“I love how you have to earn their trust. They don’t just openly give it. In the beginning, especially when they come with their parent, they often only want to be with their parent. Then slowly, through the weeks, they say my name, they call me over, they hold my hand, they share things with me, and I feel the beginning of these friendships forming. I love that.”
What is your favorite thing about working with parents and caregivers?
“Something that I always loved when I was a young parent was seeing somebody else delight in the miracle that is my child — The little things, like having them put together a three-word sentence, or seeing them reach out and communicate with another adult who is not me. I think the parents that I work with are so appreciative of those things in a way that I really understand. They just want somebody to celebrate their child alongside them. And I am so happy to do that. I’m happy to be that person, and I feel really lucky that I am that person.”
What value do you see in providing children with the opportunity to learn in nature?
“The thing that I love about the outdoors is that it is big enough to hold their noise, if they want to bring it. It is big enough to hold their running. It is big enough to hold rock throwing. It is big enough to hold all of these things you want to try out when you are two years old. There are so many spaces that are adult-designed spaces that don’t welcome that, but you can do it outside. There is so much freedom for a child in being able to do the thing that their body is curious about doing. And there is so much freedom for a parent in not having to regulate their child. That alone is reason enough to be outside. Then you add in the sunshine, you add in community, and you add in getting to see a place change through seasons. For very young children, this all combines to create a sense of beginning to learn about these patterns and interactions in a space that they belong to and that also belongs to them.”
Learn More & Register for an Upcoming Toddler Session Here