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Nature Tables
By Dawn Friedman

Children love to follow the natural changes that the world offers each month and classroom decorations reflect this. From cut-out suns in summer to scissored snowflakes in winter, most veteran teachers have tried-and-true ways to bring children into the spirit of the season. It’s fun to supplement kid-made décor with the real thing, too, and there’s no better way to do this then with a nature table.

Creating A Special Space
Nature tables are standard in Waldorf-inspired classrooms. Waldorf is a style of teaching designed by the early 20th century philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. It has become increasingly popular in recent years. Steiner believed that children should be taught reverence for the natural world and so every classroom should have a table that would reflect the world outside.

The nature table has a place of honor for Waldorf students. Usually made of unvarnished, unpainted wood, it usually has a lip around the edge so that children can play with the contents without worrying about knocking things off. Some are triangular to fit into corners, making them an easy addition even in smaller classrooms.

In traditional early childhood classrooms, a portable table could be had by using a small plastic container with a very low edge, such as the kind used for underbed storage. Even an old white board or chalkboard might be used if the frame is high enough to act as a lip. These could be tucked away to the top of a cabinet or slid under cots. If there’s room for a permanent table, a Waldorf-like edge could be had using wooden blocks duct taped to a typical table edge.

Bringing The Outside In
In Waldorf classrooms, the nature table is draped with cloth – often play silks – in colors to replicate the season. So in summer, the cloth might be a deep blue like a hot, cloudless sky. In winter, the backdrop could be white and in autumn it would imitate the color of the leaves.

A trip to the thrift store or even the school dress-up box might net some cheap silk (or silk-like) scarves. Or, for teachers not constrained by the Waldorf emphasis on natural fibers, pieces of wallpaper, construction or tissue paper, or scraps of cloths might do the trick.

Items to display can include leaves, flowers, rocks, sticks, etc. Depending on how accessible the outdoors is to your students, you can take a special trip with them to find things or you can gather them on your own. The important thing for the nature table is that they be in season. So no sunflowers in January and no autumn leaves in May.

Waldorf schools usually include dolls so that children can play-act the changing of the seasons. Because true Waldorf is very rooted in story-telling and make-believe, characters on their nature tables include fanciful characters like flower fairies or “King Winter.” For non-Waldorfers, adding appropriate figures can be fun, too. These can be as simple as Fisher-Price people (dressed appropriately) or even wooden pegs with faces drawn on.

Finally, you can include the trappings of the season. What sorts of symbols say “summer” to you? Are there holidays coming up? If so you can add symbols of the special event a day or two before it arrives to add to the excitement.

What’s important is that you keep the nature table oriented in the natural rhythms of the season (in other words, don’t let your Halloween table be overwhelmed by plastic spiders, plastic pumpkin heads and toy candy corn).

Helping Kids Connect
Like the “what’s the weather” activity at circle time, a nature table helps connect the children to day-to-day changes as well as to the larger events that happen outdoors. Children who are excited about the first snow of the year will be gratified to see that reflected in their nature table, too. Teachers can switch the backdrop or the details with the children or surprise students each morning or after lunch or large muscle time. The nature table can be as practical or as magical as the teacher wants it to be.

Ideally the nature table should be available to any child who wants to play with it during free play periods. For this reason, keep a supply of the more breakable items (pine cones, for example) since they will inevitably deteriorate as little hands explore. Respect for the table – and its contents – can be conveyed by a formal introduction to its items after each change during circle time or small group time.

Visitors to the classroom or the students themselves can be asked to bring in additions. The teacher might have members of the class take turns being responsible for bringing something in. Children will surely be proud to show off a flower from their garden, a rock found on their way to school or a leaf discovered outside on the playground.

Supplementing the Curriculum
Nature table contents can spring out of discussion or classroom events. If the class is going to visit a farm in the spring or is reading Growing Vegetable Soup in late summer, the nature table can reflect these events with a little planning. The farm visit could be represented by the addition of a toy mother pig and her piglets. Vegetable soup can be shared by adding an actual potato, carrot and rutabaga.

Discovering and discussing very special finds (a bird's nest, for example) could instigate a science discussion. After the arrival of leaves in late spring or early summer, children might be inspired to do leaf rubbings to tape around the nature table space.

Adding a nature table is an easy way to bring the world outside in to your children. Spend some time pulling together the resources and discover just how easy it is to give your students the great outdoors right in the classroom.

Dawn Friedman, a former preschool teacher, lives in Columbus OH. Her work has appeared in Parenting, Yoga Journal and Salon.