What Is a Nature Preschool?
A nature preschool is a fully-licensed child care operation that uses a natural area as a regular focus of its student activities.
Typically, nature preschool classes go outside every day to enjoy loosely-structured explorations and play in natural settings. In this core component of a nature preschool, the teachers’ roles are to gently facilitate the process, to ensure safety, and to provide guidance and information as needed. The children's own interests and discoveries guide these daily explorations, rather than any predetermined activity outlines or academic goals and objectives. The excursions normally last 45 to 90 minutes each day, and are done in any weather conditions that are not actually dangerous.
Children and parents understand that these outdoor activities will often get the children wet, dirty, hot, and/or cold. Good outdoor clothes are a must, and a change of clothes is always kept on hand for each child. The underlying motto is simple: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!
Most nature preschools also include daily free-play time in a structured playground which is usually more naturalistic in design than traditional play areas. To comply with most states' laws, these playgrounds are enclosed with natural barriers or fencing. Children playing there are supervised, but they are enjoying individual nature play rather than the group explorations that each class does daily.
Nature preschools always offer indoor activities, too — typically including stories, music, construction play, art, dramatic play, snack, etc. In this regard they are very similar to other types of preschools, though nature preschools usually incorporate natural themes and materials throughout their indoor activities.
Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child” -- i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.
To do this most effectively, the children's activities draw from their own interests, discoveries, and observations -- with the
preschools' natural settings providing a treasure trove of opportunities and adventure. General themes may be followed, such as seasonal changes outside, or growing a vegetable garden -- but each day's activities remain flexible, to allow for the ever-changing delights and surprises of nature.
This child-centered approach is a very good fit with current understandings of how young children best grow and develop, despite American society’s apparent obsession with moving formal academic instruction into earlier and earlier ages. The whole child approach is also excellent preparation for school readiness.
Nature preschools operate on an annual tuition basis and
have daily, weekly, and yearly schedules similar to that of most preschools. Parents can typically choose either morning or afternoon sessions, meeting from two to five days per week. The children are usually ages three, four, or five at enrollment; it is common to require a child to be three before entering and to be fully toilet trained.
Some preschools use mixed-age classes, while others separate their students by age. There are thoughtful reasons and beliefs behind both of these approaches.
Class sizes (maximum) usually range from 12 to 18 students, with either two or three teachers per classroom. Most states’ licensing rules include maximum student-to-
teacher ratios, and these ratios are sometimes different for indoor activities than they are for outdoor excursions. Even with a smaller nature preschool classroom, two teachers are considered essential — and a third adult can be very handy. Occasionally this “third adult” role is filled by a college intern or a long-term volunteer, rather than by another paid staff member.
American nature preschools have permanent facilities with at least one dedicated classroom plus appropriately equipped restrooms. The classroom(s) can be used for other purposes when the preschool is not in session, but for some audiences that will require the movement of a lot of specialized furniture
State licensing usually dictates specific guidelines for minimum classroom size (measured by square feet per child), number and location of restrooms, number of exits, fire suppression requirements, size of playground, etc.
Benefits of Nature Preschools
From the perspective of a conservation organization, the
core rationale for nature preschools is that they provide their students with a very close approximation of the kind of frequent, unstructured, outdoor childhood play that research has
identified as being the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values. They are thus
a strong fit with the conservation and education missions of most nature centers and similar organizations.
direct contact time with the outdoors than students receive in nearly any other model of environmental education. In fact, each child enrolled in a nature preschool will usually enjoy hundreds of hours exploring and playing in natural settings during the course of his or her preschool experience.
This approach is more likely to generate life-changing experiences than are shorter, infrequent, cognitive-focused EE programs. In addition, nature preschools' loosely-structured, daily outdoor explorations allow the time and opportunity for real discovery and play, as compared to traditional K-12 environmental education lessons that are scheduled, regulated, and confined by schools’ curriculum objectives.
The nature preschool model also provides exceptional support for the overall healthy growth and development of children. The daily explorations build valuable skills such as observation, experimentation, and sorting, while allowing for both individual experiences and group sharing. The children's outdoor discoveries also provide great subjects for all manner of artistic and verbal expression, and the daily walks help to establish early habits of physical fitness.
Perhaps most of all, nature preschool students truly learn how to learn –- developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one's turn, and following simple directions.
Where Are They?
The most prominent nature preschools in the
30 to 40 of these, and they are scattered across the country, in places like
There are many other less-visible, private preschools that also follow similar philosophies, using nature-based play as the central component of their curriculum, but most of these are not known beyond their immediate communities. However, as understanding of the effectiveness and success of nature preschools grow, their numbers are gradually increasing.
To Learn More:
An excellent resource about nature preschools and the similar forest kindergartens is David Sobel's book, Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens -- The Handbook for Outdoor Learning. It was published by Redleaf Press in 2016. Green Hearts' founder, Ken Finch, contributed two chapters to this book.
Also, see this older article about nature preschools