Nature-based programs, starting as early as preschool, boast benefits for children of all ages.
By Kelsey Casselbury
For years, it’s been said that kindergarten is the new first grade, with young students expected not only to know their ABCs, but also the basics of reading and beginning math principles. Does that mean preschool is the new kindergarten—with all of the academic rigor that goes along with it? The answer is ‘no,’ according to those who subscribe to the theory that early childhood education shouldn’t be overly structured, nor should necessarily take place within the confines of an indoor classroom.
“Parents in this community believe they need to get a leg up on their kids’ education so that when the kids are in kindergarten, they’re going to be at the top of the class,” says Teece Nowell, MS, LCPC, founder and director of River’s Edge Forest Play in southern Anne Arundel County. “What they don’t realize is that’s not natural.” Although River’s Edge isn’t a traditional preschool, its FORESTplay program, as well as its annual summer camps, are designed to develop children’s skills, confidence, resilience, and physical bodies while they are immersed in nature.
Nature-based preschools, sometimes called “Forest schools,” are identified by the Natural Start Alliance, a division of the North American Association for Environmental Education, as those that put nature at the heart of the curriculum, include environmental literacy practices, and spend a significant amount of instructional time outdoors.
The first nature-based preschool in the U.S. opened in Connecticut in 1966; however, the concept was slow to catch on. In 2012, research found just two dozen such preschools operating in America, but from there, they quickly gained momentum—and now, according to the Natural Start Alliance, there are nearly 600 nature preschools in the U.S., with an untold number of additional programs that promote early childhood experiences and education through nature without being registered as official preschools.
In the past year, due to the pandemic, local nature-based children’s programs reported an explosion of interest from parents, likely because of the amount of time spent outdoors. “People are finally realizing the power of nature and getting outside,” Nowell notes.
Addressing ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’
Fifteen years ago, author Richard Louv published the book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children,” in which he coined the term “Nature-deficit disorder.” While not a legitimate medical diagnosis, Louv—who also co-founded the nonprofit Children and Nature Network—used the term to describe how humans, especially children, are spending less time outside, which has resulted in a number of negative consequences.
While families may have turned their focus to early-childhood academic progress, scientific research has consistently highlighted the benefits of daily contact with nature, including the development of creativity and problem-solving skills, better academic performance, healthier diets, improvement in self-discipline, and reduced stress.
“Whatever aspect of child development you care about—the development of motor skills, literacy, empathy, balance, focus—I can find you a study that links to time outdoors and playing in nature,” claims Anna Sharratt, executive director of Free Forest School, a national organization with local chapters (including nine chapters in Maryland and D.C.) that host events for child and parents or caregivers to explore and play in nature. “But the studies just confirm what anyone who interacts with young kids—or who can remember being a kid themselves—already knows: Experiences in nature with their peers give kids the freedom, stimulation, opportunities to explore, challenges, and real-world experiences that push them to grow, learn, and develop.”
An Open-Air Curriculum
Just as in traditional preschools, the commitment to nature and an environmental education can vary between programs. Some local preschools, such as Best Beginning Preschool and The Key School, both in Annapolis, feature certified Nature Explore Classrooms, which indicates that the programs have demonstrated a commitment to connecting children with nature. Others, such as Magothy Cooperative Preschool in Pasadena, as part of the Natural Start Alliance, meet the criteria of a nature preschool.
Magothy opened in 1974 but started to take on an environmental focus in 2012, says Director Lindsay McDermott. “All of our curricula are inspired by nature,” she shares. From lessons on vermicomposting and gardening to simply reading a story in the fresh air and sunshine, “We have found that there are so many academic focuses that can be found in nature.”
Beloved elements of traditional preschools, such as parachute time, still exist, but it’s done outdoors. Both the Magothy educators and parents soon see a transformation in the students, noting that the young children ask deeper questions, use improved vocabulary, and display better observational skills.
River’s Edge, however, refrains from academics in the traditional sense, according to Nowell. “We are not a school; we are a nature connection. We are teaching, but I don’t like to use that word because people think ‘school,’ ” she says. The program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily and has options for 3- to 6-year-olds and 7- to 13-year-olds, is child-led, but with one rule: “You have to be kind. You have to be kind to others; you have to be kind to nature,” Nowell explains.
The two programs have one thing in common, though—the kids are immersed in nature, no matter what the weather. While River’s Edge has a barn if it’s really cold or sleeting, there’s no stipulation that the kids can’t be outside because it’s under 40 degrees or raining, like in traditional preschools, Nowell states. Part of sending your child to Magothy Cooperative School is understanding that they need to be prepared (and dressed) to play in all weather. “It’s part of the philosophy,” McDermott explains.
Nurturing a Lifelong Investment
Early childhood education launches a youngster’s environmental enlightenment, but what about when that child embarks on a traditional academic education in kindergarten and beyond? Even when they no longer have the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature—during the school day, at least—there’s still a need to promote eco-literacy. Those enrolled in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) still receive environmental instruction, thanks to the Office of Environmental Literacy, led by Coordinator Melanie Parker, EdD.
“We try to really emphasize the connection to our local environment, so students learn about what’s around them,” Parker says. They do so with grade-specific programming, such as kindergarteners investigating “Why Are Trees Terrific?” at Downs Park in Pasadena; fourth-graders on a one-day or overnight trip to Arlington Echo Education Center in Millersville; and Envirothon, a statewide competition for high school students. “We align with the environmental literacy standards for Maryland, and we’re connected greatly with the curriculum going on in the classroom,” Parker adds.
However, the goal is bigger than just adhering to state education standards—it’s about creating an connection to and investment in the environment around them. “If we can get students outdoors and connecting with nature . . . they’ll eventually care for the environment,” Parker hopes.
Nature-focused programs can be especially impactful for children who live in urban areas, such as Baltimore or Washington, D.C., as well as children living in poverty. Living Classrooms, which offers opportunities in both cities, welcomes children from all backgrounds for its E-STEM (environmental science, technology, engineering, and math) programming that includes the nation’s first Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership at Masonville Cove and Maritime Voyages, which incorporates watershed science, water quality testing, oyster and crab life cycles, and marine debris and pollution.
However, “a big part of what we do is try to level the playing field for children living in poverty and, in particular, for those that have less opportunity for positive experiences in nature,” says Thara Taylor, Living Classrooms’ vice president of development and communications. “It is our intention that these exposures (in-person or virtual, for the time-being) have an impact and value well beyond the initial experience—that participants leave feeling safe in the outdoors.”
She also notes that it can be a challenge for children who live in cities to become comfortable and confident in nature—but it’s a challenge that Living Classrooms welcomes. The first step may be as simple as getting the students to sit on the grass for the first time, then they tackle more complex issues, such as how run-off pollution in cities affects where they live.
“Although some of our students may be facing disparities—not feeling safe in their own neighborhood, or not having their basic needs met at home—we try to provide moments where they can feel safe and they can let go,” Taylor sums up. “Students light up when they touch a live fish or see an osprey or bald eagle fly overhead. Most children absolutely become invested when we explain how our actions on the land can have a direct impact on marine life and subsequently the food chain, including humans.”