In short, the rise of the nature preschool is a pushback against the modern day trappings of fast paced technological advancements.
The explosion of technology in the last decade has touched every facet of our lives. People seem to be addicted to screens in the form of social media, email and texting. What is even more telling is its exposure to the youngest members of society. Today it is virtually impossible to be in public and not see at least one toddler looking at a cellphone or tablet.
However, I think parents are starting to think about the impact of constant screen use can have on a developing brain. More and more scientists are publishing studies linking excessive screen use to speech delays, depression and anxiety in young children and teens.
What is a Nature Preschool?
A nature preschool is a school where a large amount or all instructional time is spent outdoors.
There are two types, one where children and teacher are outdoors the entire time with the exception of portable toilet use. The second is where the class is mostly outside but also incorporates brief time inside a building (trailer, local library, etc.)
Nature preschools are usually located in parks, forest areas, botanical gardens and even urban farming zones.
Almost all of these schools are registered and licensed just like a traditional childcare center. They must also keep state regulated student teacher ratios.
Child-centeredness and developing “the whole child” is at the heart of the nature preschool curriculum.
However the curriculum of any given nature school is unique to that program. Some schools encompass traditional preschool things like the alphabet, number identification, phonics and story time.
Some schools shy away from anything that resembles a typical preschool classroom and instead allow children to roam freely and learn solely from their surroundings.
Others even integrate other established educational philosophies like Waldorf and Reggio Emilia creating a hybrid approach.
The environment is what Mother Nature provides for the day. There is a common thought among nature preschools that there are no bad weather days, only bad clothes choices. Year round nature preschools operate outdoors during rain, shine, snow and all in between.
Children are usually asked to dress appropriate for the weather and bring additional clothing in a backpack just in case.
In extreme hot or cold class will usually take place in a temporary indoor space. The exact temperature and weather condition for this call is unique to each school.
In the great outdoors the children are free to explore and inspect insects, forestry and small bodies of water including ponds and streams.
And when you think about it there is actually a lot a child can learn while fully immersed outside: colors and textures found in nature, types of trees, plant life and small animals to name a few.
Role of the Teacher
The nature preschool teacher serves as a guide. Mother Nature is the real teacher and provider of learning material, the preschool teacher is a facilitator and makes discoveries right alongside the child.
Another important role of the teacher in a natural setting is that of maintaining safety. Small children can get hurt or even lost in the woods and near small bodies of water. Teachers are a vigilant protectors, ensuring children stay safe despite obvious dangers.
There are many benefits to nature preschools including but not limited to:
- Being in nature allows children to learn and play in a slow paced setting away from screens and other distractions.
- Being in the outdoor environment enables the students to be creative and absorb information in an organic way.
- There is actually a study that claims playing in dirt has its benefits. “Direct contact with soil has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety and facilitate learning”
- Improves sensory skills, contributes cognitive and social/emotional development and increases attention spans
Some people criticize the approach because of the lack of academics. A lot of parents look at preschool as a foundation for K-12 learning. As I said before some, not all, nature preschools do not spend much formal time going over “the basics” (colors, recitation of letters and numbers, handwriting/tracing and introduction to reading).
My advice: look up nature preschools near you to find out their approach.
Another non-surprising criticism is of course weather concerns. Almost all parents wants their child to get some type of outdoor time during their school day however some are not comfortable with their little ones outside for hours during rain, heavy snow, icy temperatures or above average heat.
Life After Nature Preschool
Here’s a common question. Does nature preschool prepare children for traditional kindergarten?
That all depends on how you define prepared. Nature preschools pride themselves on promoting healthy physical activity, developing critical thinkers, fostering self confidence and reducing stress and anxiety.
While learning does not take place in a typical setting, these children most certainly develop skills necessary for life.
Cieara is a wife and mom of two, passionate about empowering parents to not just survive but thrive. She offers practical and expert advice on topics related to parenthood.