At Audubon Nature Preschool, a “classroom” can be a pond, a bamboo forest, a meadow, or a garden. That’s because Audubon is a “nature preschool"—one of a growing number of preprimary schools where children spend all or part of their days outdoors.
Five years ago, only a couple dozen such schools operated in the United States. Today, there are close to 250, according to the Natural Start Alliance, a coalition supporting early-childhood and environmental education.
The surge in nature preschools can be partially attributed to Richard Louv’s decade-old best-seller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Louv, a journalist and author, theorizes that the shift toward nature-based education is happening quickly at the pre-K level because preschools can be less structured than K-12 schools.
“Many preschools are private or independent, so there’s more flexibility there,” he said in an interview.
Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the price of humans’ isolation from nature, including “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”
Louv’s ideas come at a time when the prevailing trend in schools is toward more academic instruction. And many believe the level of academic rigor has ratcheted up because of the Common Core State Standards.
“Teachers are so tired of the direction that much of education has been going toward,” Louv said, “toward more and more testing, toward canceling recess, toward longer school hours, toward anything but real experience in the real world.”
A Different Pedagogy
In San Diego, Susan Seiguer, the founder and lead teacher at All Friends Nature School, has used the early-childhood-education program “Growing Up Wild” as her curricular guidepost.
She also borrows the pedagogy of a Waldkindergarten, or forest school. At these schools, children between the ages of 3 and 6 spend their days outdoors, either in a forest or some other natural environment.
All Friends enrolls 11 children, with one teacher for every four to six students.
“All of our days are spent outside, rain or shine,” Seiguer said. “There is no facility.”
“Some days we spend our afternoons building a shelter so we have a shady spot to eat our lunch or just to play in,” she said. “Other days we may go on a bug hunt and see how many different types of insects are living around us, counting the different types and learning their names.”
While San Diego’s temperate climate may provide an ideal location for outdoor education, nature preschools have also cropped up in places with more extreme weather.
“One of the big things we say in the nature-based-education world is there’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor choices in clothing,” said Madison Powell, the director of the Chippewa Nature Preschool in Midland, Mich.
Every Chippewa student has a pair of waterproof, head-to-toe coveralls, as well as boots, gloves, hats, scarves, balaclavas, and changes of clothes and shoes for “indoor” school. Children spend about half the day outside, barring hazardous weather.
“If it’s dangerous to be outside—if it’s dangerous to be in the elements—then we are inside,” Powell said. “We’re not throwing them outside just because we’re a nature preschool and we say we have to.”
At Chippewa, four-day preschool costs around $355 per month. Eligible parents in Michigan can apply for tuition-free preschool through the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program. The Chippewa Nature Center also provides scholarship funding, so no family pays more than 5 percent of its household income.
Powell said about half of the 140 students enrolled receive some form of financial aid.
School Without Walls
At Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle, co-director Kit Harrington said she keeps enrollment low to strengthen relationships with families. This year, 42 students are enrolled and 180 are in a “waitpool.” (Tuition at Fiddleheads ranges from $330 to $780 a month.)
Like All Friends Nature School, Fiddleheads has no building affiliated with its program. Students retreat to a heated greenhouse—which has electricity and running water—when high winds make it impossible to be outside.
Otherwise, students’ “classrooms” are two forest groves in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.
“We sort of are a bridge in between what may be considered a more typical forest school approach and a more structured approach,” said Harrington, a former Montessori teacher. She co-directs the preschool with Sarah Heller, whose background is in environmental education.
In winter, Fiddleheads students hike and explore the arboretum, learning about natural science.
“We follow an arc of the year,” Harrington said.
“At the start of the school year, we really emphasize grounding the children in the environment, helping them connect with the space, developing a foundational awareness of themselves in relation to the environment,” she said, “giving them language to describe their emotional and physical states, as well as giving them an awareness of the expectations of the setting so they are empowered to have ownership over caring for the space and caring for each other.”
In the decade since Last Child in the Woods was published, the volume of studies on nature-deficit disorder and the effects of green spaces on school-age children has grown, Louv said.
A 2009 study from England’s University of Essex, for example, concludes that “participating in physical activity and experiencing nature play an important role in positively influencing our health and well-being.”
“Yet,” the authors go on to say, “physical activity levels have dropped dramatically, and inactivity results in 1.9 million deaths worldwide annually, roughly 1 in 25 of all deaths.”
Likewise, Jane Clark, the dean of public health at the University of Maryland College Park, argues that the current generation of children has been made sedentary—"containerized” in strollers, car seats, high-chairs, and all manner of accident-preventive secure seating, which allows them little free movement.
“When they get to day care—I used to say—if a parent could just pass their child through the window, they would,” Clark said.
Clark drew a diagram from a study in which three generations were asked where they played as children. The grandparent drew a radius around the house, extending several miles in each direction. The parent’s circle was smaller, but still included much of the neighborhood and the surrounding woods. Finally, the child drew a circle with just the house and the backyard.
There are a lot of reasons for the shrinking play space, Louv said: the advent of “stranger danger"—parents’ perceptions of threats to their children from strangers, increasing urbanization, and the strong pull of technology-based and indoor entertainment.
The schools are not without some criticism, though. “Certainly there are many potential benefits to outdoor education, and they provide an important alternative to the increasing and troubling amount of ‘seatwork’ and teacher-directed learning that young children are faced with in preschool, pre-K, and kindergarten settings,” said Fikile Nxumalo, an assistant professor of early-childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin.
But she is “also concerned about prevailing romanticized engagements with nature in many of these schools—where there is this assumed ‘natural’ connection between children and nature, and where nature is seen as primarily a site for child development.”
Nxumalo favors nature preschools that take a more complex view of the environment and define nature education “within current ecological challenges"—for example, discussing what it means to live ethically with animals deemed “pests” and dealing with litter in the natural environment.
Problem of Access
Though she believes nature schools are a step in the right direction, Nxumalo also sees room for improvement, especially in ease of access to these schools for many urban and economically disadvantaged children.
“I think part of the risk of ‘nature preschool as passing trend’ is that nature preschool remains something that is not widely accessible to children and families from economically marginalized communities,” Nxumalo said. “I think this needs to change.”
Louv is hopeful that the more principals, administrators, and school boards get involved, the better chance nature-based education has of reaching the masses.
As for environmental barriers, he contends that even in the densest of cities, nature can be found. It may be less sprawling than it is in the countryside, but it’s there—and it’s vital.
“Much of our pathology, I think, as a species is we think we can go it alone. The immersion in species not our own is extraordinarily important. This is who we are—it’s part of our biology, part of our humanity,” Louv said.
At Maryland’s Audubon Nature Preschool, located on 40 acres of nature sanctuary, students spend as much time as possible outdoors,said Director Stephanie Bozzo.
“The curriculum emerges from what the children are interested in, but we have a broad idea of which spots on our sanctuary are most appealing during the different seasons,” Bozzo said.
Days at Audubon, which costs an average of nearly $800 per month, follow a familiar rhythm. Each morning, children begin outside, come together for a morning circle, and go to learning centers where they move through preplanned activities. Then, they read a story and end the day with a hike.
If the weather is nice and no one complains, Bozzo said, they might spend the entire day outdoors.
Airen Hall has had two sons attend Audubon. Before moving to the area, she said, her oldest had gone to a traditional nursery school in Syracuse, N.Y.
“In our experience, the difference goes far beyond just the kids spending a lot of time outside,” Hall said. “The most important differences are in the whole philosophy of the program. [Audubon] is just such a learning-rich environment. They encourage the kids to ask a lot of questions and explore and be curious.”
Audubon parents choose from five different classes: Acorns, Sprouts, Saplings, and Oaks. Acorns have class once a week for 90 minutes on the sanctuary grounds. Sprouts and Saplings divide their three hours between indoor and outdoor activities. Oaks, dubbed forest “kindergartners,” meet four days a week from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and spend half the day outside.
Bozzo tries to keep the children’s boundaries wide—"wider than typical teachers are comfortable letting children explore,” she said.
“Children don’t necessarily feel like they’re being watched at all times, which we think is very central to our mission—that children are exploring on their own and what they gravitate towards is whatever they’re intrinsically interested in,” Bozzo said.
And each day is different.
“That’s the beauty of nature—that it’s surprising and it’s dynamic,” Bozzo said.
Research assistance was provided by Library Intern Laura Zollers.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘Nature Preschools’ Spread Like Weeds