Over the last 3 years, nature schools, forest kindergartens, and outdoor preschools have exponentially grown in number in the U.S. according to The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). Collectively known as nature preschools, nature-based learning has become a popular choice. NAAEE’s study claims there were 585 nature preschools in the U.S. in 2020, which represents a 25-fold increase in one decade.
One would assume nature preschools are more popular in states like California due to the good weather. Yet, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts also rank the highest in terms of the number of schools available. If you Google nature or forest preschools in almost any town or city in America, it’s likely you will find options. The number of schools is not 100% reflected in the statistics NAAEE reports. Many Parks and Recreation Departments and other government-funded programs were not included in their data7.
Covid-19 Affects How Parents Want Kids Educated
Some experts speculate COVID has impacted the average parent’s interest in nature schools. One of the positive sides to outdoor, nature-based education is said to be the decreased risk of COVID transmission. Yet, the benefits reach far beyond COVID. Integrating some nature-based learning into early childhood education can benefit kids in the following areas6:
- Decreased errors
- Increased sense of calm, purpose, and self-esteem
- Reduction in fight/flight instinct
- Improved attention and intellectual curiosity
- Rise in positive moods, such as happiness, empathy, and compassion
- Improved cognitive function
- Decreased inflammation
Outdoor education also promotes a healthy lifestyle. Kids develop gross motor skills through physical activity as they learn. Therefore, children begin building positive habits. These habits often continue into adulthood, which may contribute to long-term health benefits.
Forest & Nature Schools Are Not New
Nature-based preschools can be found in dozens of countries around the world. With a diverse and long-standing history, it’s safe to say COVID was not responsible for this phenomenon in education.
Ella Flautau formed the world’s first forest school in Denmark in 1952.³ Around the same time in Sweden, Gösta Frohm innovated a similar idea using Skogsmulle: four fictional characters he created to teach children about nature.² Called “rain or shine schools” (or I Ur Och Sku), Sweden’s first true forest schools were not established till 1985. Frohm’s framework was used in these first schools and continues to be used today.
Modern forest schools didn’t emerge in California until 1996. Despite this new trend, the history of nature schools tracks back to the 1920’s. Wakelin McNeel and H.L. Russell conceptualized the first forest schools in Laona, Wisconsin in 1927. Russell attended an outdoor tree-planting project in Australia that ignited his forest school concept. At the time, his idea took the form of an outdoor classroom built for learning.³
Parks & Rec Departments Provide Nature-Based Learning Programs
Jennifer Thomas, the Meadowbrook Park Natureplay Program Director for the Parks and Recreation Department in Johnson County, KS, commented, “Johnson County’s Parks and Recreation Department (JCPRD) developed our first Natureplay Program at Mill Creek 7 years ago. JCPRD’s Natureplay classes and camps at Meadowbrook Park were launched 4 years ago and have been full from the get-go, which is unusual for new programs.”
Johnson County’s Natureplay Programs focus on nature- and play-based learning with an emphasis on social emotional learning. Their success is a testimony to the direction parents desire for the education of their little ones. Teachers introduce 3–5-year-old kids to STEM subjects experientially as they explore the world outdoors. Geology, ecology, soil science, physical geography, plant science, zoology, atmospheric science, and other environmental sciences are all included. Kids may not be able to spell them yet, but they are launched in the right direction to pursue knowledge in many STEM fields.
After the Meadowbrook Park land was donated, JCPRD developed the ex-golf course into a nature space specifically for their Natureplay Programs. Thomas says, “Kids spend 90% of their time outdoors in a tech-free, interactive environment. In our case, this translates to time in Meadowbrook Park’s nature space in Prairie Village, KS.”
Nature-Based Early Learning Organizations
The NAAEE and Natural Start Alliance are two organizations promoting nature-based early learning. They have been hard at work developing the criterion for licensing outdoor and nature-based preschools. In November 2019, Washington became the first state in the country to license outdoor preschools.
“The desire to connect to place is a part of what makes nature preschools unique in modern education”, says Kit Harrington, Policy and Professional Training Coordinator at Natural Start Alliance¹.
Place-based learning encourages kids to engage with their community, which includes (but is not limited to) their physical environment. When kids feel connected to the community, they begin to take pride in it. Attending forest preschools promotes an eco-friendly mindset. Communities realize long-term benefits as a result. Nature schooling connects kids to their environment so they want to preserve nature spaces as adults.
Incorporate Nature-Based Learning Today
Parents can find many nature-based, 1-week long camps in the summer like those hosted by Johnson County’s Parks and Recreation Department. It’s the perfect way to introduce kids to a bit more time spent outdoors without completely switching schools. For those parents who cannot afford these programs, many offer scholarships. Scholarships make outdoor learning available to every child.
Indoor schools can start incorporating more outdoor learning experiences by taking kids on a lot of field trips. Angeles® produces multi-passenger buggies to make on-the-go learning feasible for teachers and caregivers. The 6 Passenger Bye Bye Buggy®, 4 Passenger Bye Bye Buggy® in Red/Grey, and 6 Passenger Bye-Bye® Bus incorporate safety and comfort features to make traveling to different destinations fun.
Buggies were designed to fit through most doorways, include a safety parking brake, and optional canopies provide just the right amount of shade.
Need some ideas on how to weave more outdoor learning into your repertoire? The NAAEE (North American Association for Environmental Education) hosts a conference4 in October in Tucson, AZ. One of their partner programs, the Natural Start Alliance, hosts a Nature-Based Early Learning Conference5 in July in Cincinnati, OH. These conferences help educators jumpstart their outdoor learning programs. Attend one (or both) online or in person.
- Licensing Outdoor & Nature Based Preschools, In Washington State and Beyond, by Kit Harrington, https://naturalstart.org/feature-stories/licensing-outdoor-nature-based-preschools-washington-state-and-beyond
- History of Skogsmulle – How it Started, https://www.owlscotland.org/images/uploads/cluster_groups/Skogsmulle_-_the_start.pdf and http://igniteup.co.uk/events/swedish-early-years-study-visit-and-training-skogsmulle/?fbclid=IwAR1eJVJPfImpGjB2hLbc0pYAH8w83DUO90bPFAGz9cdDFcKHhzG3T5KWukw
- A Brief History of Forest Schools Around the World, Forest School Foundation, Oct. 9, 2020, by John Lubbock, https://www.growingwildforestschool.org/post/the-brief-history-heritage-of-forest-schools-around-the-world