STONINGTON — The best way to get fresh young minds in gear may be to move the classroom into the woods.
Davnet Conway Schaffer, new executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, has a passion for teaching preschoolers through nature. The former senior director of operations and preschool director takes the reins from longtime executive director Maggie Jones, who held the position for 27 years.
In a recent interview, Conway Schaffer talked about her passion for teaching through nature.
“One of the big things I’ve been spending the bulk of my 17 years was doing was our nature-based preschool,” Conway Schaffer said, which she started in 2006 based on the center’s early childhood education programs for children 3-5 years old.
Conway Schaffer said she studied European “forest kindergartens” before developing the nature-based preschool program.
“We had one of the first nature-based preschools in this country,” Conway Schaffer said. “It started in 2006, and it was my big passion for quite some time.”
The premise, she said, is to get children outdoors every day and teach directly through nature.
“We do know is that play is how children learn,” she said, “and there’s no better play then playing in nature.”
The program offers two classes with 16 children in each class, two or three days a week.
“At the preschool level, it’s really just about making a connection with nature and getting comfortable being outside,” she said. “It really is a wonderful opportunity for unstructured play, where the children can kind of make up their own stories and get that sense of feeling free outside that we had when we were children.”
Former director Jones wrote in an email that nature, land, and the sea had likewise been a defining part of her life since she was a child, and that “nature everywhere is a universal language that goes way beyond DPNC.”
Each week the preschool offers a new nature-based theme which is seasonal, Conway Schaffer said. For example, in spring the children learn about flowers and seeds. As they get older, she said, the children are introduced to more and more complex ideas and work with different kinds of science standards in conjunction with local schools and curriculum.
Conway Schaffer said she was trained in the Montessori method of teaching, which she described as a “very natural way of teaching children.”
“You teach children what they are interested in... and what they would like to learn,” she said. “It’s very organic and it fits very well with what we do. It’s very child-driven.”
“One of the things that can be challenging is animals, because we do use a lot of animals to educate people,” Conway Schaffer said. “Some may not have been exposed to that.”
The preschool recently held a “Ladybug Luncheon,” in which the children got to help release thousands of ladybugs into the nature center’s garden, while they were taught how ladybugs are valuable to the environment.
The center, she said, also does rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals, particularly birds of prey that cannot be re-released to the wild, and are subsequently used for educational purposes. There are 17 species of birds and owls that reside now at the nature center.
Summer camp programs offer activities for youngsters from 3 to teenagers, she said. The programs are mostly at the nature center and Coogan Farm, but at times are off-site.
After the acquisition of Coogan Farm, Conway Schaffer in 2015 became the associate director of the nature center, with increased responsibilities in operations and management.
“The Coogans had a good relationship with the nature center and they wanted to see the land preserved,” she said. “We wanted to keep the ‘farm’ in Coogan Farm, so there was a partnership with the United Way and the Robert G. Young Foundation to start a giving garden.”
Tons of fresh produce are grown by the “no spray/no till” method, which is also known as
“regenerative gardening,” Conway Schaffer said, which rebuilds the soil, and sequesters carbon back into the soil rather than releasing it. The produce is donated to the Gemma E. Moran Food Bank, she said, for distribution to needy families in New London County.
Conway Schaffer said the nature center land is owned by the Denison Homestead, which is operated by a group of Denison descendents who are related to Capt. George Denison, one of the first landowners in Connecticut. The Coogan Farm and Avalonia Land Trust Conservancy also border the nature center, and all three parcels are connected by walking trails.
“With these three major organizations we have almost 400 acres of greenway right in the middle of Mystic,” Conway Schaffer said. “You can hike from here to (Mystic) Seaport or the Hilton and avoid all the traffic. It’s really a wonderful collaboration between those organizations.”
Conway Schaffer noted about 40,000 students came through the center’s nature programs last year, and the total reach of people through programs that they offer was 70,000.
“We’re a small nature center that does a lot of things,” she said.
The nature center announced July 8 that Maggie Jones had stepped down from her position as executive director and been named executive director emeritus.
“We’ve all learned a lot from Maggie,” Conway Schaffer said of the former executive director. “We’re just looking forward to taking what we’ve learned from her and taking it into the future. She’s a tremendous naturalist and kind of an intuitive naturalist.”
Jones said in an email that her involvement at the nature center through the years had been rewarding and exciting, as the nature center was in “rough shape” when she started in 1992.
“Thanks to an enduring commitment by the Denison Homestead, the center has proven to be a resilient organization… and I am honored to have such a long association, dating back to the 1960s when we moved to Old Mystic and my parents became family members,” she wrote.
She also noted it was one of the oldest such centers in the state, having been established in 1946.
Jones continues her work in the natural world by serving on the State of Connecticut Conservation Advisory Council, the Groton Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, and as Tree Warden for the town of Stonington. She also continues to be involved with several regional organizations and land trusts.
Conway Schaffer holds a bachelors degree in environmental science and a masters in oceanography, as well as training in Montessori early childhood education.