Women in Early Childhood Education: My Interview With Nature Play School Owner Jessica Clayton! by Mike Prochaska

Women in Early Childhood Education: My Interview With Nature Play School Owner Jessica Clayton!

Jessica Clayton lives on the Jersey Shore in Brick, N.J., and runs Nature Play School for children 4 weeks old to school age. Jessica always enjoyed taking care of children, working as a babysitter, camp counselor, nanny and paraprofessional all through her high school and college education. After she finished her BA in English and History, her cousin, Julie Berg, who was working as a Master Teacher in Jersey City, recommended that she take advantage of a scholarship program that helped teachers earn their NJ Teaching Certificates in Early Childhood Education. She then worked for six years in New Brunswick and Trenton teaching preschool in publicly funded “failing school districts” in bilingual inclusion classrooms.

Jessica now owns and operates a nature play school out of her house. Her mission is to “educate children in a loving home environment with a nature-play based curriculum.” She's also one of the founding members of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools. They are a non-profit organization that provides services, support and inspiration to early childhood professionals to advance the field of nature-based early childhood education and encourage a lifelong appreciation for our natural world. Read on to learn even more about Jessica and her thoughts on kids and play…

Q. Why is play important for children?

“I love that play allows children let their own interests guide their learning. Rather than focusing their lessons on what the teacher thinks is important, they naturally gravitate toward the lessons that they are excited about. That excitement fuels their learning, naturally propelling them forward, and cementing those lessons in their mind. Whether they are learning how to improve their rendition of their favorite character in marker or to better navigate the tricky social skills needed to maintain a prolonged game of ‘Bad Guys vs. Good Guys,’ the children are improving their fine and gross motor, social, physical, mathematical, and linguistic skills as they pursue their own interests.”

Q. Why is it important to introduce children to nature?

“Taking children out to natural settings on a regular basis is essential to providing them with a well-rounded education. Forests, riverbanks, meadows, marshland and beaches expose children to spaces that are not designed and planned by teachers specifically for them. They use the materials on hand to plan adventures in wild spaces, improving their problem-solving skills and expanding their creativity. They natural setting has also been proven to make people feel good, improving their mood and metal state. I hope that the children in my care begin to associate natural spaces with happiness and make it a habit throughout their lives to visit and enjoy them.”

Q. What about outside play? Is it important?

“Outside play is particularly important to children because outdoor spaces are larger. They allow children more space to run and engage large muscles in various forms of heavy, physical activity. It also gives children more room to spread out, break into smaller groups, allowing for my individual and quiet play. The outside classroom allows for all the same types of learning that happens inside the classroom, in addition, the setting also introduces children to all aspects of science, engaging them with plants, insects, weather, animals, geology, physics and more.” 

Q. What about risky play?

“When kids are ready, they naturally begin to challenge themselves by incorporating risk into their play. I often watch as the create obstacles for themselves and invite others to join them in their adventure. They may begin by placing a large plank on the floor ‘over the pit of crocodiles’ and then work up to raising it off the ground and walking across. Risk in play allow children to experiment with challenges that they set for themselves at a level that they are comfortable with. As they begin to face real dangers in their lives, they will have honed the skills they need to assess whether those risks are really something they feel they can handle or ones they should back down from and come back to when they have acquired more skills.”

Q. What about roughhousing with kids? 

“Just like risk, roughhousing naturally arises during play when the children need it. As a teacher, I just teach the children to respect each other’s boundaries. We say, ‘when someone says no, you have to stop.’ As long as everyone seems happy the rough games can continue with little or no intervention from me. If children get angry or upset, I often use the ‘sports casting’ strategy. I just say, ‘Rhea seems angry. She says, Stop! If someone says stop you have to stop.’ I may ask Rhea to clarify what exactly she want the children to stop doing. Often the rough can continue as long as that child is allowed to set specific rule. For example, ‘you can chase me and grab my coat but not my hood.’”

Q. What do men bring to the classroom?

“My husband, Al Clayton, works with me as my substitute, and often comes to play with the kids in the afternoons. He teaches differently than I do. While my ‘lessons’ tend lean towards teaching social skills and telling stories, his gravitate more to physical and mathmatic skills. Outdoors, he tends to run around with the kids more providing hands-on examples of sports strategies. He also prefers to play board games with the kids indoors, even making up his own games. He often teaches the children about math and the relationships between numbers without them even realizing they are learning."

Q. What’s your favorite memory working with kids?

“I can’t think of a specific memory but I love the moment when I bond with children for the first time. That moment of connection that I feel when the child and I really understand each other and they begin to trust me. Most recently, a new student of mine was crying for his mother. I told him it was okay to miss his mom I just sat with him on my lap and sang him a song until he settled. Later in the day when he had fallen down and was upset again, he climbed right back on my lap and settled. I knew then that he trusted me to make him feel better when he was sad and I couldn’t have been happier. As long as he knows I’m there to keep him safe, he can get to the important work of exploring our space and playing with the other kids.”

Q. What’s your favorite book to read to your classroom?

“I try not to let my own interests guide the learning. so I let the kids pick the books I read to them from my collection for our daily large group read. I try to keep the library brimming with lots of good books by visiting our local public library and picking up lots of new ones. I do enjoy reading books by Shel Silverstein to the kids though. I think is because I don’t always ‘get’ them and reading his stories is often a learning experience for all of us.”

Q. What’s your favorite activities to do with your kids? 

“By far my favorite thing to do with the kids is visit the forest. I love being surrounded by trees and surprised by the changes to the environment. Suddenly you might come upon a wild turkey or (once!) a great horned owl and it can become a moment that remember forever. As I learned at Green Mountain Teacher’s Camp, ‘You never know when you are making a memory.’ For me, those lasting memories most often happen in the forest.”

Q. Anything inspiring to tell anyone thinking of going into this field?

“If you are thinking of going into teaching at the public school, I highly recommend working as a substitute teacher first. Try out all the different grades and all the different roles before you choose a field. You can learn a lot about public education, a school district, and what you like to teach, from being a sub.

"I highly recommend you read ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ ‘Balanced and Barefoot,’ ‘It’s OK Not to Share,’ ‘Play, Let Them Play,’ and check out the Alliance For Childhood’s website. All of these resources have been an inspiration to me and gave me a good solid foundation, so I could grow as an educator.”

Be sure to check out Jessica's Facebook group, Nature Preschool Ideas and Community!

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Nurture Your Child’s Natural Curiosity & Urge to Learn in Your Own Backyard

Elisa Schmitz
This is wonderful! Welcome to our community, Jessica Clayton . Thanks for the fun interview, Mike Prochaska !

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