How to Pick an Outdoor Preschool

America's outdoor preschools are unregulated and mostly benefit the privileged. Still, they're a damn good idea.

Outdoor schools? We vote yes.

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A rabid bat was just discovered in my four-year-old’s classroom. Bats, if you didn’t know, are the animal most likely to infect Americans with rabies. Also, their teeth are so small that you may not even notice when one bites you. Still, my wife and I weren’t worried because a) rabid bats seem to prefer biting raccoons over children, and b) Theo’s classroom is a 42-acre woodland park in Missoula, Montana, so there’s plenty of room to coexist with all manner of wildlife.

Theo spends two mornings each week at an outdoor preschool, one of hundreds of similar early childhood education programs around the country that are connecting young kids to the wonders of nature before they’re shuffled off to the hallowed halls of indoor learning.

You may have noticed that these schools are cropping up everywhere at the rate of pickle parlors in Brooklyn. According to unofficial tracking by the Natural Start Alliance, a group that advocates for outdoor early education, the United States now has more than 250 nature-based preschools. That number has almost doubled since 2016 and is ten times higher than in 2012. The schools are particularly prevalent in coastal states and the Midwest.

Outdoor schools started in Europe and migrated to the United States, much like other decent ideas, such as espresso, Ikea, and democracy. The first one to open in the United States was the New Canaan Nature Center Preschool in Connecticut, in 1967. Meanwhile, in Europe, the schools are so mainstream they’re hardly even notable. Germany has more than 1,500 waldkitas (forest schools), and in Berlin, the government covers almost all the tuition and fees. (Am I making you sweat, Betsy DeVos?)

Emilian Geczi, who directs the Natural Start Alliance, says one explanation for the rapid growth of outdoor preschools in this country might be parents reacting to all the new standardized testing in elementary school. “A lot of parents are seeing nature preschools and their emphasis on exploration and child-led play as a good antidote to that,” he says.

Getting kids outside to learn about the natural world feels increasingly important when childhood obesity is rising, technology is increasingly addictive, and more of our lives are spent indoors. Initial research suggests nature preschools positively affect children’s physical development, self-confidence, and social skills like collaboration while also strengthening their sense of place.

“A program that’s outdoors allows children to come alive in a way that an indoor program might not,” Geczi says. “It allows them to exercise their imagination by playing with sticks and rocks and stumps in an environment that has different textures and colors and is always changing.”

Still, because they’re private, new, and buildingless, outdoor schools are unlicensed and unregulated. Most nature-based early education programs in the United States are less than five years old, and there is significant variance in how they interpret the idea. If you’re shopping around for an outdoor preschool for your child, Geczi says you should first look for a teaching staff that has a solid grounding in childhood development. Second, because outdoor schools take place in a less controlled environment, the staff should have a high teacher-to-student ratio and clear guidelines on things like tree climbing and creek crossing to keep kids safe while encouraging free play and healthy risk-taking.

Beyond that, Geczi says four things are helpful indicators of a quality nature-based preschool:

  1. A commitment to letting kids play, explore, and have positive and joyful interactions with nature.
  2. Letting the children’s sense of discovery, wonder, and inquiry set the agenda for the day or week or month, rather than having a preset list of activities.
  3. Incorporating activities that allow kids to learn how to care for nature, like nurturing a plant or putting water out for the birds. “That moral development is learned just as much as other domains of development,” Geczi says.
  4. A commitment to diversity in the program, the teaching, and in the students the school serves. “It adds a lot of richness when a nature-based program can draw from those cultural differences in how we relate to nature,” he says.

This last point is a common criticism of the burgeoning trend of outdoor early education in America: that it mostly benefits middle-class white kids. Theo counts among them. The short hours and high tuition of many nature-based schools—not to mention the corresponding expense of good jackets, gloves, and boots—make them unfeasible for many working parents.

But Geczi is encouraged by states like Washington and Colorado, which are piloting programs to license outdoor preschools so low-income parents can receive tuition assistance from the state government. It’s worth remembering that kindergarten, another European import, is a relatively recent addition to our education system, and public kindergarten wasn’t available in every state until 1986 (when Mississippi finally caved).

Theo just started his second year at his outdoor school, which is run by Ms. Stacy, an unflappable woman from Philadelphia whose motto is “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” These words propelled us into the outdoor store and introduced “thermal base layer” to Theo’s vocabulary. Ms. Stacy runs the school out of her backyard, where one of the playthings is the gnarled claw of a wild turkey. A short walk away, Rattlesnake Creek burbles through the cottonwoods in Greenough Park.

Theo and his classmates spend a lot of time in the park, clambering over logs, spying on great horned owls, and skipping rocks in the creek. Last year, during the first month of school, they walked past a black bear perched in a ponderosa.

The results are positive. Theo has learned to identify animal prints and berries. He fills his backpack with beaver chips, pinecones, and whittled sticks. On cold winter mornings, his class builds a fire in the backyard. Sometimes they hang a cauldron over it and cook venison stew. On those days, Theo comes home tired, grubby, wild-eyed, and smelling of wood smoke. Sometimes it feels like we’re parenting Hugh Glass. Now, when we’re out on a cold family hike, Theo offers up eerily sage axioms, like “you only get cold when you stop moving.”

Geczi attributes Rachel Carson’s book, The Sense of Wonder, for his inspiration to educate young kids outdoors. “Carson tells us that adults don’t need to have all the answers when they’re taking their kids outside in nature,” he says. “They just need to come to the experience with an open mind and their senses in tune. They need to notice things and ask questions and encourage the child to observe and ask questions themselves.”

And if that’s not an educational revolution worth supporting, I don’t know what is.

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