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New daycare, early childhood education center at UMF offering nature-based learning

The new center at the University of Maine at Farmington focuses on incorporating nature into the classroom.

FARMINGTON, Maine — During the COVID-19 pandemic, several Maine educators began teaching outdoors amid social distancing concerns. Incorporating nature into class curriculums has since taken root across the state, including at the University of Maine at Farmington. 

Nature-based education is the focus of a new childhood and early education center set to open at UMF later this fall. Anna Ploug was an ed tech when she started working toward getting her bachelor's degree in early childhood education at UMF. Initially, she had some doubts about that career path. 

"Do I feel comfortable putting small children on iPads for parts of the day? I have a lot of value calls I was struggling with," Ploug explained.  

Ploug, who lives in Madrid Township, homeschooled her children, using nature in their lesson plans. She plans to continue utilizing nature when she becomes a teacher, thanks to UMF's numerous courses in nature-based education. Hands-on teaching opportunities will come alive at the new Sweatt-Winter Early Education Childcare and Early Education Center.

Crews are close to completing the 20,000-foot center, which will replace a smaller building on campus. Outside, some play spaces incorporate paths and nature, eventually featuring a tree house and raised garden beds. Gleaming and colorful new classrooms are being set up for infants, toddlers, and after-school programs, adding 20 new spots for children. There are also several areas where UMF students will observe children in an instructional classroom.

"Being able to take what we are working on in the classroom to an outdoor setting gives children a chance to unwind and explore," Ploug enthused. 

Theodora Bailey is a fourth-year student majoring in early childhood special education. Originally from Colorado, combining nature with education brought her to UMF. She believes using elements of the outdoors impacts the lives of most vulnerable children from an early age.

"Developing that creativity and imagination helps a lot of different realms of development," Bailey explained. 

Patti Bailie, Ph.D., is an associate professor of early childhood education at UMF. She is helping pioneer nature-based learning. The approach has taken off since teachers began holding classes outside during the pandemic, and more Maine school districts are taking notice.

"There are a lot of administrators who are seeing the benefits where it helps children physically ... and cognitively with problem-solving," Bailie explained. 

The new center will expand the enrollment of UMF's undergraduate and graduate early childhood education programs. It's become a recruitment toolgiving educators tools beyond a brick-and-mortar classroom. Ploug, meanwhile, plans to pursue a master's degree, earning a -nature-based graduate certificate along the way. 

The new daycare program is open to the community but has a waiting list. If you would like more information, click here.

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