If you’re thinking of launching a nature preschool, now is the time. Demand for quality outdoor early childhood education is soaring: over the past three years, the number of forest kindergartens and nature-based preschools across the country has doubled.
In Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, where a group of parents and I are planning to open Oak Leaf, a nature-based cooperative school, most outdoor preschools have waiting lists. According to a friend, spots at the Chicago Botanic Garden Preschool, a half-day program, fill up within five minutes.
Why the sudden interest in nature-based education? During the pandemic, parents saw firsthand the social, emotional, and academic benefits of outdoor learning. And recent climate disasters - wildfires, droughts, tornado outbreaks, scorching heat waves - are highlighting the urgency of promoting respect for nature and environmental stewardship.
I spoke with some seasoned nature-school teachers and directors for some tips on setting up a successful program, and compiled a basic overview below.
Schools and daycares that switched to outdoor learning during the pandemic should consider making the change permanent. (Scroll down to the sections on outdoor classroom design, curriculum development, and staff training to learn how.)
After 50 years of offering a traditional preschool program, Hunters Woods Cooperative Preschool in Reston, Virginia, transitioned to a nature-based model. “Our curriculum has always had a nature influence, but in the 2019-2020 school year we made a shift to fully embracing nature-based learning,” said lead teacher Dianne Rose.
The school closed in the spring of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. After offering virtual classes for a few weeks, Rose said it was apparent that the model wasn’t working for young children. School staff scrambled to figure out a way to meet in-person in the fall. “That’s when the decision was made to become a fully outdoor program,” Rose said.
Many nature preschools incorporate as nonprofits. When I set out to establish Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a quick google search (keywords: “incorporating nonprofit in Illinois”) landed me on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website, where I was able to complete the entire process online. Other states are similar.
Illinois requires a minimum of three founding board members for a nonprofit entity. The rules vary by state, but establishing a founding board is always an essential first step.
Fliers at local businesses can attract passionate board members; so can striking up friendships with like-minded community members at local parks or community events. I met several board members while at the playground with my two-year-old twins, and others emailed me after noticing a flier at a popular coffee shop.
It helps to have board members with a diverse range of experiences, such as marketing, law, finance, web development, and education. Ideally, at least some board members are parents that wish to send their children to the school; at co-op preschools, parents make up the majority of board members.
Megan Gessler runs Little Trees Early Learning Program at the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700 acre wooded property outside Chicago. “Finding a location is the hardest part,” Gessler said. “There are limited places to do this.” Her list includes forest preserves, park districts, botanical gardens, and arboretums.
Park Districts: Partnering with large, established institutions offers practical advantages. “If I work with a park district, they probably already have a program and a curriculum,” said Gessler. “It could be the same for forest preserves. You are working within a larger entity that may already have structures and boundaries. There are so many great things working with a large organization, but you have to understand there are limits.” Less creative freedom is one of them.
Botanic Gardens: "Joining forces with a botanic garden or arboretum could offer the same support structure, with more autonomy to design an original curriculum," Gessler said.
Community Spaces: Or you can go the route I took with Oak Leaf, and reach out to houses of worship or community centers with classrooms, a yard, and access to a nature area. For day care licensing purposes, it helps to have a playground nearby. Renting space from a house of worship allows more autonomy than might be possible through a partnership with a large, established nature-based institution, but requires more thought about insurance, marketing, and fundraising.
Summer Camps: Gessler recommends looking into renting space from summer camps, which are often vacant during the school year. “Places that do summer camps already have links to insurance and have a space set up and would be an easy extension,” she explained.
Backyards: Margie Pines runs Ta’am Teva, a Jewish nature preschool north of Chicago, in her half-acre backyard. “You can do things in small spaces and still accomplish a lot,” she said. Pines scrambled to find a location during the pandemic, and initially settled on her yard as a temporary measure. The experiment worked out so well, she didn't bother looking for a bigger space. “It has a more intimate, family feel,” she explained. “Eight kids can be really busy on half an acre, investigating a lot more than you would expect.”
With the exception of Maryland, which introduced a bill to establish separate day care licensing guidelines for nature preschools, the focus of most licensing agencies is on indoor space. Classrooms must pass a fire safety inspection and meet a whole slew of criteria, from minimum square footage per student to a minimum number of books available in the classroom library, so prepare for a potentially long and costly process.
Getting the Most out of Indoor Space: There are perks to renting indoor classrooms. Hunters Woods Preschool has been renting space at a community-use building for its entire 50-year history, and despite switching to an outdoor-only program, continues to use the bathrooms and storage space. “To be a licensed Child Day Center in Virginia, we have to have a classroom, so we do continue to rent the indoor space,” said Dianne Rose, the lead teacher. Having access to adequate indoor space comes in handy during severe or extremely cold or hot weather.
Camp License: In some states, such as Michigan, nature preschools can get licensed as year-round camps, which would work especially well for schools that rent summer camp grounds during the school year. State requirements for summer camps focus on outdoor spaces, reducing the expenses of maintaining barely-used classrooms.
Home Daycares: After initially partnering with a half-day preschool to offer afternoon enrichment, which helped establish interest in the program, Margie Pines licensed Ta’am Teva as a home daycare. In-home programs have fewer licensing regulations than center-based preschools. The rulebook for in-home daycares is 120 pages, Margie recalls, compared to 160 pages for day care centers. Pines has to invest time and money in ensuring her house meets state regulations. During licensing inspections, the state representative assigned to Ta’am Teva barely looks at the backyard, where the learning actually takes place.
As Megan Gessler of the Morton Arboretum puts it, most nature preschools have three distinct spaces: indoor classrooms, designated outdoor play space, and wild areas, such as a wooded hiking trail. When designing an outdoor play space, Gessler recommends doing so in a sustainable way. “We are modeling those ways for the children,” she said.
If park districts, forest preserves, or cities are cutting down trees, they might be able to provide stumps for an outdoor gathering area. "Using native wood prevents the spread of invasive insects," Gessler said. A group of Eagle Scouts built Little Trees’ “tinker table,” for art and science projects, and will be assembling a mud kitchen. Vocational school students helped with woodworking projects, creating a garden bed and stage for dramatic play. “You can buy the wood and they’ll build,” Gessler said.
The Morton Arboretum’s outdoor classroom has a fort-building area with large sticks, for strengthening gross motor skills. Teachers use old milk crates to store loose parts, for fine motor play. At Little Trees, the majority of loose parts and manipulatives come from nature. "Teachers can sit alongside a child playing with acorns or pinecones," Gessler said, and together they can count the seeds. “It’s so organic and easy.”
An ideal outdoor classroom is cross-curricular. “Don’t think about learning centers like music, dramatic play, or art,” Gessler said. “The dramatic play can bleed over to other areas. Let the learning flow, such as when children leave the outdoor classroom to explore other parts of the Arboretum."
Dianne Rose, of Hunters Woods, likes to keep things simple. “An ideal outdoor learning space has room to run, space to gather, and a way to take shelter from the elements when needed,” she said. “A gathering space can be a picnic blanket. Shelter can be a shade tree.” Water is a must-have play element at Hunters Woods. When there’s no mud puddle to draw water from, Rose transports two large water coolers to supply the mud kitchen or other projects her students come up with.
At Ta’am Teva, Margie Pines said her small backyard offers a wealth of opportunities for children to explore without feeling overwhelmed. Children refer to walks around the property as hikes. “They call part of it the ‘dark woods,’” she said. “There are eight trees!” Pines recommends looking at outdoor space sitting on the ground, from a child’s perspective. “Kids don’t need acres and acres,” she said.
An emergent curriculum, which aligns with children’s interests, is a staple of nature-based preschools, particularly Reggio Emila inspired ones. Margie Pines comes up with “big ideas,” and uses them as starting points for play-based exploration. For inspiration, she flips through nature calendars to learn what animals and plants are doing each month of the year in Northern Illinois -- which flowers are blooming, which evergreens are producing pine cones -- and adjusts lessons to reflect what children want to investigate.
On a recent morning, Pines had planned to explore “sounds in nature” with her class. But then a shooting took place at a 4th of July parade in a nearby town, where many of her families have connections, so she switched the theme to “how to feel peaceful.” Children made lavender playdough, looked at the clouds, and played with a puppet named Peaceful Piggy. “You have to be sensitive to kids’ needs and what’s going on,” Pines said.
Healthy risk-taking is an important component of nature-based programs. At Ta’am Teva, children learn how to safely whittle and use hammers and other tools, with help from laminated safety cards. Before introducing new tools, Pines sends a letter home to parents and includes children in brainstorming safety rules. “When we talk with them, they always come up with good ideas,” she said.
Nature preschools and outdoor daycares must grapple with two weather-related concerns: when to cancel outdoor activities, and how to encourage parent buy-in for messy outdoor play in all seasons, rain or shine.
At Oak Leaf, we plan to hold classes indoors during severe storms and extreme cold, and will include this policy in our parent handbook, website, and reminder emails. At Little Tree preschool, Gessler uses alerts from NOAA to determine when weather is too severe to hold class outdoors. Safety is the primary goal, but so is ensuring that children have positive outdoor experiences. “If it's too hot or cold, children aren't going to love nature, and our goal is to have children love nature,” Gessler said.
At drop-off, Gessler scans to see if children are dressed appropriately for the weather. Before the school year begins, she holds an orientation and provides a list of recommended gear, and explains the difference between waterproof (suitable for a whole morning splashing in the mud) and water resistant (not good enough.) Parents can find most of what they need at Goodwill, or through gear swaps with other families. Children outgrow jackets and boots so quickly, there are always opportunities to access hand-me-downs. As the seasons begin to change, Gessler shares videos showcasing how she wears appropriate outdoor clothing.
She also helps children explore their own weather-related limits. “As weather starts to get colder, I will allow them the space to get themselves wet and experience what that feels like,” Gessler said. “I'll do that on a day when we’re hiking near the indoor space, and have a change of clothes.”
Joining regional and national membership organizations, such as the North American Environmental Education Association and its sister program Natural Start Alliance, provide new preschools with access to experts. Gessler, who is the founder of the Illinois Nature Preschool Association, a regional organization, and a member of the Natural Start Alliance’s Executive Leadership Team, turned to other nature school directors for advice when she began running Little Trees. “We share our resources and share our knowledge,” she said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Before facilitating nature-based learning at Hunters Woods, Dianne Rose taught preschool for 17 years. She has a masters degree in curriculum and instruction for early childhood education, and has spent hundreds of hours in workshops, lectures, and conferences. Yet, Rose found that teaching in nature demanded a new set of skills. “Teaching outdoors requires a very different mindset, and different tools in your toolbox, both literally and figuratively,” she said.
Rose recommends that teachers who will be working at a nature-based program participate in the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS) Nature Based Teaching Certification program (in-person, if possible) and attend the Natural Start Alliance Nature-Based Early Learning Conference. Rose said both programs connected her with seasoned outdoor educators, and affirmed that nature-based learning is what children need. One of the key takeaways for Rose is that educators need to be flexible. “Mother Nature rules the day, and she will constantly remind you of that fact.”
For a deeper dive into the world of nature preschools, take a look at these two books:
Nature Based Preschool Professional Guidebook
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