Meet Tara, An Urban Outdoor Educator

Educator Mama Tara Gratto

If you are raising a child in the city, you likely wondered more than once if your child is spending enough time in nature? Perhaps you’ve even toyed with the idea of moving to the country to immerse your young children in the outdoors? 

That’s why I’m excited to introduce our August guest expert, Tara Gratto of EducatorMama. She runs an outdoor play-based preschool where she strives to find a balance between the realities of urban living and getting kids outside!  Tara does this all in her own backyard in the buzzing city of Toronto, showing us the different ways city kids can bond with nature.

Read on to learn more about Tara and get her doable tips on introducing nature play into your child’s life plus how to encourage those kids who don’t like the outdoors to embrace it.

Coffee, Tea,  Water, or Green Smoothie? How do you start your day?

There are a couple early risers in my home, one for work purposes and one who was just born to embrace the early morning hours! Most days I am up with the sun, or just before it, and a cup of Lemon Lily tea. This is a special time I share with my son and a time when I begin to do some of the food prep needed for the day.

Tell us about you, and your urban outdoor preschool, EducatorMama.

I am an educator by training as well as by vocation, it is my passion. When I got pregnant with my eldest I knew that my life course was changing. Not unlike many mothers-to-be, I thought more deeply about things that went into my body and on my skin. I have always had a strong ecological awareness, but pregnancy prompted me to look beyond surface level environmentalism to investigating more about toxins and sustainability. This was also a turning point for me in understanding food production and sourcing.  

Following the birth of my second child, I began to think more deeply about how I could ensure that my children would have a playful early childhood filled with outdoor time, friendships and holistic food. I have been blessed with supportive parents and somewhere along the way my mom planted the idea that I should start my own little school. From that idea was born EducatorMama, an outdoor and play-based preschool in West Toronto.

What led you to start EducatorMama? How does it differ from other preschools?

EducatorMama is founded on the idea that kids need to get outside and play in all kinds of weather.  Second to that is the importance that real food plays in the developmental stages of early childhood.  My program focuses on exposing children to outdoor play based learning experiences and healthy homemade food. As an urban outdoor play based environment kids are given the opportunity to explore play in a setting that seeks to provide children with a balanced approach to natural and outdoor play. As a small school, I am able to facilitate a true play based experience by acting as a guide and capitalizing on teachable moments as they happen.  

Toronto outdoor preschool

One of the main differences that sets my program apart from others is that we play in all kinds of weather. I don’t prescribe to any single way of education but rather draw from the different strands to provide children with a spectrum of learning experiences.

outdoor preschools

If we’re looking for a preschool for our children, how can we tell that they are truly committed to fostering a love of nature?

Fostering a love for nature is so much more than an interest in bugs and identifying different kinds of leaves. It isn’t that simple, it’s much more complex because I believe it’s about relationships.  

How can we expect children to respect the environment without first respecting themselves and one another.

 Being kind with our hands and our words is the beginning of developing an understanding of our interactions with nature. Understanding where food comes from and that real food doesn’t magically appear are all characteristics of developing a deeper understanding of nature. Without having conversations about interpersonal skills, you can’t have conversations about the values of developing a passion for our natural world. Learning to love nature is being committed to listening with our ears, looking with our eyes, being mindful with our hands, identifying with our noses and understanding or asking before we taste.

What can parents do to their own backyards to create a more natural environment for their kids to play?

Probably the single most common fear about creating a natural environment for kids to play in is a deep rooted fear of being dirty or allowing children to be messy. The first step in creating a natural play environment is accepting that children will get dirty and that this is part of the process. Mud and sand can be washed off, but the memories will remain.

Playing in the mud at daycare

Creating a natural play environment in an urban setting is about simplifying things and providing children with objects or materials that are found in nature. As an urban outdoor educator, I think it is important to strike a balance by providing children with a natural play area, but I also will give them familiar tools to enjoy the experience. For me, the outcome is still instilling a greater understanding of natural elements.

a mud kitchen in a preschool

Some simple ideas: fill a toddler pool with soil and give them shovels and buckets, get a bag or two of landscaping river rocks and dump them in a pile with a scrub brush and a bucket of water and/or challenge them to make tall towers, collect a bunch of sticks in different shapes and sizes.

Shaving cream outdoors

How can we encourage children who just aren’t that interested in nature to become more engaged?

Time! Learning new things takes time.

One way to get reluctant children out is to bring the inside out. I have found this to be very effective in bridging the gap. Some children will take to the experience right away, but more often you will have to continue to expose them and find ways to encourage them to try new things and embrace the experience. I will sometimes say to people, it’s like introducing new foods or working with a picky eater, sometimes you have to keep trying and other times you need to get creative, but you always have to keep trying and be patient if you want to make a change.