The lessons of animals and play in nature

At Lynn Schanen’s Saukville Playschool, kids play hard and learn from a teacher who uses friendly animals as her assistants
Ozaukee Press staff

Lynn Schanen watched in silent astonishment as children climbed trees, played in nature and interacted with animals, including her favorite—goats.

“I could barely talk. I couldn’t even breathe,” Schanen said. “I was on cloud nine. They had all the things I love.”

A trip to a preschool on a farm in Minnesota wouldn’t normally be a life-changing experience, but it altered Schanen’s career.

She was working as an assistant in Riveredge Nature Center’s nature-based 4k program that she helped develop, but at that farm realized she wanted to start her own school.

“I was so amazed,” she said. “I thought, why am I not doing this?”

Barely a half year later, Schanen was operating Wait-A-While Playschool, complete with goats, chickens, rabbits, dogs, a bearded dragon and a “super friendly” gecko.

 This week, she is celebrating the school’s first anniversary.

A few stars had to align for Schanen to reach her dream.

The house next door to her Saukville home is owned by her father-in-law, who rented it to a family. Schanen asked to use it for her play school when it became vacant, but the tenants had just signed a one-year lease.

But two weeks later they were buying a house and asked out of the lease. Schanen had her building.

She took online classes and fixed up the house. She is certified for six children up to school age.

A nature-based preschool became a natural fit for Schanen as she went through her teaching career. She grew up on a farm in Illinois where her father, a Texas native, trained horses to ride before giving them back to their owners.

Schanen, as young as 7, was used as a sort of guinea pig. If she was bucked off by a horse, it would stay for a few more days for further training.

“I got bucked off a lot,” she said.

But she kept getting back on, a lesson she tries to instill in the children at her play school.

Schanen figured she would become a middle school teacher and earned a degree in secondary education and biology from Lakeland University in Sheboygan, where she was recruited to play volleyball.

Before graduating, Schanen studied in Australia, where she saw a wait-a while plant, which became the inspiration for her school name.          

Schanen met her husband Ted,  at Lakeland. After college, the couple moved to Colorado and got into dog sledding. They spent a summer in Alaska, where they worked with sled dogs while living on a glacier with 300 dogs.

Once they had children, Ted and Lynn moved back to Wisconsin. Lynn worked at the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA and then Riveredge. Ted teaches biology at Ozaukee High School.

When her children were toddlers, Lynn realized that was the age group she wanted to teach. That decision was confirmed when she taught the Nature Tots program for young children at Riveredge. On a trip to the forest during maple sugar season, someone asked what the kids in diapers should be told. She said to tell them the same thing as everyone else.

“I wanted to be the spokesman for people under 5,” she said. “Just because they’re little doesn’t mean they’re babies. They can help and do things.”

At Wait-A-While Playschool, that’s exactly what they do.

Each morning, they visit the chickens to feed and water them and collect eggs.

Friendly goats with names from the movie “Jumanji” usually follow the crew on the walk to the see the feathered creatures. They, along with a couple of rabbits that get held every day, live in a camper that Schanen converted into a chicken coup.

Next to that is the garden where the children help rake compost and clean up after the animals. “When you allow 4-year-olds to do those jobs, they love it,” Schanen said.

The children also planted pumpkins and  monitor the growth of sunflowers before they cut them down, yelling “timber” each time, and make sunflower forts.

Part of their snack time includes picking tomatoes, carrots, turnips, watermelon, cabbage and beets. Most anything that doesn’t need to be washed is devoured before they get back to the school building.

A visit to the excitable sled dogs is often in order — they take them out to run and pull the children on sleds. One just had puppies, which is a big attraction.

Other activities take place outside as well, including music, campfire lunches, water fights with reusable balloons and playing in the sandbox.

“My favorite is the animals. The kids’ favorite is the sand,” Schanen said. “Anyone who knows me, I like anything with fur or scales. I never met an animal I didn’t like.”

During rest time, the children love sitting in a hammock with some of the goats while another goat, Dr. Bravestone, pushes them.

Children helped build a wooden bridge over a wet area and are encouraged to climb trees.

“We believe in risky play like using hand tools and climbing trees and love the self-esteem boost and confidence it provides to the students,” Schanen said.

Falls are cheered. “‘Yay, you’re OK,’” Schanen said.

The goal, Schanen said, is to be outside 75% of the time.

Inside, math, reading, science and art are taught, and every day they talk about the weather.

Animals also provide education inside. Children feed greens to Ludo the bearded dragon and create mazes out of blocks for Gecky the gecko.

“Connecting children with real live animals in deep and meaningful ways that result in them being more loving, caring and respectful to animals, other people and nature,” Schanen said.

She said she specifically chose the name playschool over preschool.

“So many people think play is a break from learning,” she said. “Play is learning.”

Parent Julie Behm said her 3-year-old son loved the summer program of dissecting owl pellets, hatching baby chicks, learning math with sunflower seeds and playing with baby goats and bunnies. He gained confidence, she said, from building with real tools and planning cities with his classmates in the giant mudpit.

“He would spring out of bed on school days, just couldn’t wait to get there,” Behm said. “He came home tired and happy every single time.”

For Schanen, her passion has come true, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’m livin’ the dream,” she said. “2020 has been hard and not what anyone expected, but I have goats and just got puppies.”




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