Staying Connected Amid Challenges

January 25, 2024, Department, by Monica Rauchwarter

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During the height of the pandemic, families with young children were impacted by a lack of safe opportunities to connect. The staff of Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, restructured our usual monthly programs to provide weekly programs during the 2020-2021 school year. With a combination of virtual sessions and in-person outdoor gatherings, we delivered 594 hours of preschool programming in a time when similar offerings were limited. We learned many things from adapting to the challenges of this era that we continue to implement today.

Cultivating Connections

Richardson Nature Center, located within Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, Minnesota, is a gateway to stunning natural beauty just minutes from Minneapolis. The nature center and larger park reserve are part of Three Rivers Park District, a special park district that manages more than 27,000 acres of parks and trails. At Richardson Nature Center, we offer special events, school group programs, self-guided experiences and public programs. “My Preschooler & Me” is a series of public programs for children ages 2 to 5 and their adults. The programs are designed to foster connections — connection between the caregiver and child, connection with other caregivers and children, and connection to the natural world.

Figuring out how to foster connection from a distance was challenging, but we eventually decided upon a combination of take-home supplies and virtual sessions. Each themed take-home packet contained a craft with all supplies included. The packets featured coloring pages, an article or infographic geared toward the adult caregiver, and a tool to encourage outdoor exploration. The materials could be used ahead of, during or after the virtual session.

Each virtual session consisted of introductions, a song or story related to the topic, a lesson or activity related to the topic, and some unstructured time to be together virtually while engaging with the take-home materials. One advantage of hosting virtual sessions is the ability to welcome participants who wouldn’t be able to attend a typical program due to their location or transportation options.

Though these sessions were different from our typical programs, there were many moments of joy. Watching kids recognize and greet each other at the beginning of virtual sessions, seeing their excitement when showing off their craft or discoveries, and experiencing the joy of finally meeting in person are bittersweet memories from this time.

A Focus on the Outdoors

When we resumed in-person programs in the spring of 2021, they were 100 percent outdoors. We modified the learning centers, provided detailed communication about what participants could expect and identified the additional materials needed for everything to go as smoothly as possible. We offered separate materials for each family group to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

The gross motor/big body play equipment, such as tree stumps, balance beams, and foam mats and wedges, quickly became worn and dirty. We purchased picnic blankets, extra seat cushions and an additional fire ring in anticipation of cold weather. A few books were lost to the elements, and crayons occasionally melted into the supply caddies. Despite the extra work and increased wear and tear on supplies, we recognized how valuable it is to maximize outdoor time. As we caught up with longtime participants, watched people make new friends and witnessed children’s excitement as they shared a nature discovery with their adult, we were reminded that the most important thing we provide through these programs is the opportunity for connection.

Monica Rauchwarter is an Interpretive Naturalist at the Richardson Nature Center at Three Rivers Park District.