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.