Roots ‘N Shoots: Preschoolers Connect with Nature

Preschools enjoy the Roots 'N Shoots program at OI's Schrader Center.

By Laura Jackson Roberts

If you’ve followed my Oglebay Institute adventures, you know that I’ve sat in on a lot of children’s classes: dance, gymnastics, art, and theater. But nature classes for kids are my favorite because nature is my favorite place to be. Today, I’m spending the morning with a pack of rowdy rugrats at Oglebay Institute’s Schrader Environmental Education Center.

This class is called Roots ‘N Shoots, and it’s for the littlest of the little ones, the 2- to 4-year-olds. It’s taught by educator Robin Lee, who has been interacting with Schrader kids for 9 years. In fact, my son, Andy, was a 3-year-old in Robin’s summer camp on the morning when his little brother was born. We Roberts go way back with Miss Robin. I also vividly recall the long winters when I had toddlers and how trapped we often felt, day after day, in the house. Nature and dance classes got us out and gave us the opportunity to meet new friends.

Before class, Robin arranges the lily pad mats where the kids will sit, and I ask her about the name of this class.

Grandparents Love Roots ‘N Shoots

“The reason that we call it Roots ‘N Shoots is that the roots are the adults that bring [the children], and often time, it’s the grandparents, so it’s the grandparents’ connection to the children,” she tells me. “It can also be other caregivers. And the shoots are our smallest and youngest naturalists.”

In fact, forty-five percent of the attending caregivers who come to Schrader classes are grandparents.

I start to ask Robin a little more, but suddenly the door opens and the toddlers arrive in an excited cluster. One by one, they each pick out a lily pad. Several of them tell her about the bird feeders they made in the last class.

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Today’s class is called “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and none of the children are intimidated; in fact, they’re all quite attentive as Robin draws a spider and teaches them the arachnid version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.” It’s called “Head, Thorax, Abdomen,” and it’s a chance for the wiggly kids to get up and dance around.

Robin teaches them about spinnerets, the organ with which a spider creates its silk. One by one, they wrap a ball of twine around their waists until they’ve created their very own spider web. And when they get antsy, she moves them to the tables where they create their own spiders out of pipe cleaners and sweet gum pods. (We’ve had one hanging from our chandelier for six years.)

Preschools enjoy the Roots 'N Shoots program at OI's Schrader Center.

Gramma the Tarantula Makes an Appearance

This morning’s special guest, meanwhile, has been waiting quietly under a blanket in the corner. She’s lived at the Schrader Center for four years, and Robin asks the children to sit as quietly as they can on their lily pads before the special guest joins them on the carpet. Everyone is excited, although a few of the adults look apprehensive.

Gramma is a Chilean Rose Tarantula. She’s big, she’s hairy, and she has a pink cephalothorax. Her Latin name is Grammastola rosea, hence her moniker. When Robin lifts the blanket, Gramma tenses a little bit, as do some of the adults. The children, however, squeal with glee. Now they can see the very creature they’ve just been learning about.

Taking turns and trying as hard as they can to be calm, they crawl up to the glass to get a good look at Gramma. For her part, the tarantula holds still for as long as she can, and it’s not until someone accidentally bumps the glass that she crawls to her log to hide. Gramma is getting used to the little kids, Robin tells me, and the children are lucky to have gotten such a great view of her whole body. She’s a big gal: apparently, Gramma ate very well last summer during the periodical cicadas’ emergence.

Preschools enjoy the Roots 'N Shoots program at OI's Schrader Center.

Once Gramma has had enough, the kids tumble into the adjacent classroom, where they take the Spiderweb Challenge: a web they must cross without touching the silk. They love it. Some crawl, some climb, and almost all of them snag the string at least once. When they do, a fluffy, stuffed animal that looks like Gramma comes flying into the web and they laugh hysterically. It’s a great way to end class, and each child gets several chances to traverse the web.

Save Your Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

I joke with Robin about “getting them into nature young,” but really, I’m quite serious. Our children are losing their connection to nature. They spend more and more time looking at screens and technology, when in fact, children who spend time with nature are happier, healthier, and more successful in school.

In one of my favorite books, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv remembers his own childhood—and, indeed, if you’re reading this, your childhood, too—playing outside. With a stick or a rock. Under a tree, or in a tree. Watching ants and caterpillars and spiders.

He writes, “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”

Perhaps these tiny children won’t remember their morning with Miss Robin and Gramma. But maybe that hairy little spider will spark a love of wild things, of wild and natural places, that will persist in them for a lifetime.

Roots ‘N Shoots Spring Series

The Roots ‘N Shoots series provides adults and their children the opportunity to incorporate nature education and outdoor fun into all seasons. Lessons include a hands-on nature craft, story or song and a short walk, weather permitting, to outdoor areas around the Schrader Center.

Roots ‘N Shoots is open to children, ages: 2-4, with an adult.  Two classes times (9:15 or 10:30) are available on select Fridays.  Each class meets for one hour.

Cost for all five weeks is $57.50. ($25 for each additional child.) Single session cost is $14($4 for each additional child).   Advanced registration is strongly recommended because class sessions typically fill up.

Topics and Dates include:

March 31: The Wiggly World of Worms – Discover the busy lives of worms as you explore a city of them (vermiculture bin). Find out the important job they do for us. Be prepared to get down and dirty!

April 7: Here Comes the Sun – Things are waking up after their long winter nap, even plants! Experience a seed’s life cycle as you become a seed, a shoot, and finally grow into a plant.

April 21: Sunshine and Sunflowers! – Dig in and get dirty as you plant your own flower in a recycled container using recycled soil. Learn about plant parts and what they do for the plant you take home.

May 5: Earthwalk – Experience the forest floor as you never have before. Discover tiny creatures and see the tree tops from upside down!

May 19: PrePONDerous Fun! – Explore animal life cycles as we capture tadpoles and observe wildlife at the upper pond. Class will meet at Schenk Lake.

To register, call Oglebay Institute’s Schrader Environmental Education Center at 304-242-6855.

The Schrader Center offers a variety of classes for children and adults. Other family programs include Budding Naturalists and Salamander Crawl. Adult classes for spring include composting and rain barrel workshops.  See the complete list of spring nature programs at