Outdoor Preschools Take Children into Living Classroom

Across the country, more parents opt for learning based on creativity and a little bit of dirt.

Don’t let the pristine pink-and-purple flowered galoshes fool you; Edie Pettit isn’t afraid of a little dirt.

In fact, the 4-year-old (almost 5, she would like you to know), revels in it on a daily basis. That’s because Edie attends what is an increasingly popular early learning option for modern parents: nature-based preschool.

The concept would have been laughable just a couple of generations ago. Kids came home from school, grabbed a snack, and then played outside until the streetlights flicked on. Who in their right mind would pay for such a thing? Now, as parents shuttle frazzled kids between rigidly scheduled activities, unstructured free play has all but disappeared for a lot of kids. Even recess has seen the ax in cities like Syracuse, a pattern that disproportionately impacts children of color.

But research consistently shows that children benefit from such play; kids who are allowed to play outdoors during the school day are more attentive in class and better off socially and physically.

In the past decade, a solution of sorts has emerged in the form of outdoor and nature-based preschools. Edie attends the Audubon Nature School, nestled in 40 acres of nature preserved by the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Maryland. When the school opened in 2006, there were a handful of similar preschool options in the United States. Now, there are dozens. What began as a small program with 15 children is today a school that serves more than 70 children and has a wait list. A kindergarten, which would serve an additional 15 to 20 students, is in the works.

“I feel like there’s kind of a shift in people’s interest in it,” said Caroline Pettit, Edie’s mom.

Not all of the schools are modeled the same. The Audubon Nature School is nature-based, meaning the kids spend the bulk of their day outside in any weather, learning everything from counting to the alphabet through outdoor activities. But the school has an indoor classroom where kids go for circle time and other instruction each day. Some similar preschools, particularly in the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, are strictly outdoors. The idea has been popular in Scandinavia for decades and is gaining attention in the United States. A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this year even reintroduced the No Child Left Inside Act, which seeks to amend the nation’s federal education law to give states funding to create environmental education plans.

“In my mom’s generation, she and her brothers were just sent out to play and they would come home for meals, but they really spent most of their time out of doors,” said Shannon Lyons, whose son, Jake, 4, is in Edie’s class. Her older son, Ben, also went through the program.

“And now, it’s really hard for children to find a chance to play with other kids outside that’s not structured. I think there’s a growing awareness that that’s important to children and that they need that for their development.”

Before she became a student, Edie was not all about the outdoor life. Coloring and reading were more her scene. Now, her mom says, she’s hardier, more confident, more imaginative. Her gross motor skills have improved as she has climbed tree stumps, skipped over puddles, and hiked through the meadows that serve as her classroom. Her fine motor skills, too, have advanced as she has glued fallen leaves onto paper wreaths and pulled corn off the cob.

That’s exactly what Stephanie Bozzo, founder and director of the preschool, wants to see.

Today’s toddlers, Bozzo said, are “looking at screens and having interactions with the world just through the screen, which is not how our bodies are created to best experience the world. We are sensory animals.”

She launched Audubon Nature Preschool, which is licensed by Maryland's Education Department, to give kids the sensory experiences that aren’t necessarily feasible in an indoor classroom through what she calls “whole-child” education.

“We don’t put emphasis on one area of development but on all five. We look at the whole child, so of course we value how a child is developing cognitively, but just as important are their self-help skills, communication skills, and social-emotional,” she said.

During the standard hike one recent morning (which involved lots of pauses to examine bugs and leaves), one youngster clambered a little too high up a log for his own comfort and whimpered for help. Bozzo coached the boy through the climb down without touching him. “I knew you could do it!” she exclaimed when he finally reached solid ground, beaming.

Lyons and Pettit say they are acutely aware of how limited such opportunities for nature-fostered growth will be as their children feed into Montgomery County’s academically rigorous schools.

“I think I’m really conscious of that in these years, that she can spend a lot of time outside and gain an appreciation for it. When she does go to kindergarten, I think she’ll have that sense in her body that she knows, ‘OK, when I go outside, I feel better, I get exercise, I get fresh air, I can use my imagination,’” Pettit said.

“We will promptly put a stick into every child’s hand.”

That’s what Bozzo said in response to Montgomery County's push to provide tablets and laptops to students, including children as young as kindergartners. She says that’s what solidified her decision to expand to kindergarten. She sees fostering a love of the outdoors in children as a way to ensure they help protect the environment as adults.

“We can’t ask anyone to protect or help something that they haven’t fallen in love with first,” she said. “So children having these early experiences of feeling so free and happy and just joyful in nature leads them to fall in love with nature, which then down the line helps them to become stewards of the Earth because they love nature and they want to protect nature. ... So it’s helping to grow an entire generation of stewards of the Earth, which we desperately need.”

Interest in nature-based programs for the youngest learners is growing. Bozzo said she fields a handful of inquiries each year from people looking to launch similar programs. While the majority of Bozzo’s students come from nearby suburbs, some families travel from as far away as Leesburg, Virginia. Parent engagement is encouraged but not required the way it would be in a co-op setting. A half-day program runs between $625 and $725 a month, or around $6,000 for the nine-month school year. While Bozzo says tuition covers the school’s operating costs, she and her teachers are employees of the Audubon Naturalist Society. The school runs a scholarship fund that families can donate to, but there is no robust financial-aid system in place.

As technology and screen time creep into the lives of even the nation’s youngest residents, advocates of outdoor and nature-based preschools hope the concept can instill in children a love of nature that will both foster learning and, ultimately, create environmentally conscious citizens.