I have never heard of a nature preschool until we joined our local Nature Center. Starting Fall of 2012 they will have a new nature preschool open for morning and afternoon classes. When I heard about this I was so excited for this opportunity for Lila. She LOVES playing outside. LOVES to get dirty. LOVES animals. LOVES the sun, moon, stars, clouds, thunder, rain, snow…you name it. We attended their first open house in October to learn about the program and then enrollment began on November 1st. You bet I had my application form in on October 31st. Now I wasn’t expecting to hear for a few weeks if Lila was accepted in or not, but low and behold, I heard this week that she was. Whoo hoo! Not only am I excited that she gets to go to preschool at a nature center, but also, that I am able to volunteer to work in the classroom with the kids. I feel so lucky that we have this and are able to participate in this opportunity.
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.
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.
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.
Since they attend for at least two days per week over at least one full school year, preschool students are assured of far more 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.