Jessica Fong engages with students in 2017 at the Jardincito play garden, which informed her research project on nature-based play.

Local Educator Brings Nature Play Expertise to Velma Thomas

Published September 18, 2018

Local educator and McKinley Park neighborhood resident Jessica Fong has started her teaching engagement at the Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center, bringing her expertise in nature-based play to the highly regarded preschool. Fong, whose original research quantifies the benefits of nature play, said she is eager to bring what she has learned to the school and take advantage of nearby McKinley Park and the McKinley Community Play Garden.

"Having the 65 acre park just a half block away will add another dimension to my nature-based play research," she said. "I am also curious to see what effects nature play has, if any, on the dual language development of the students."

Fong's formal research into nature-based play comes from her 2017 fellowship with the Chicago Foundation for Education. The project tracked her students' play activities at their Spry Elementary Community School classroom in the Little Village neighborhood; their activities in the nearby, recently constructed Jardincito Play Garden; as well as how they interacted in a traditional playground.

What Fong found were statistically significant benefits for nature-based play environments: Not only were kids engaging in much more cooperative and pretend play at the nature playground versus the classroom or traditional playground, there was much less fighting and arguing (and less "minimal language" like yelling) at the nature playground than at the traditional playground.

"What this tells us is that the children are engaging in much more rich and complex language in the nature playground," Fong said. "When children are engaged in pretend play, they have to use complex language and thought processes as they create play scenarios."

"The children really have to think deeply and critically," Fong said. "It’s really exciting to watch and hear."

Fong said she's focused on her new position, curriculum and students, but she still hopes to continue her research into nature-based play. "I might be able to do another study this year looking at the difference between nature play in a more unstructured setting like the park versus a more structured setting like the nature playground behind the library," she said. "There are so many questions!"

The school is an especially good fit, Fong said, given Velma Thomas' existing focus on nature play, its dual-language classes and its exploration-based teaching method inspired by the educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia. "I am incredibly excited to work at Velma Thomas."

Principal Mary Kay Richardson said the school has been anticipating Fong's engagement. "The community at Velma Thomas welcomes Jessica and looks forward to deepening our commitment to nature play, McKinley Park and multicultural learning," she said.

 


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