Forest kindergartens have existed for decades, even centuries, all across Europe. But the concept of nature preschool is relatively new in the United States and catching on. Educators, action researchers, administrators and families are discovering the powerful benefits of nature-based learning in early childhood education.
European forest kindergartens are vastly different than most American preschools. In a forest kindergarten, there is usually no classroom or school building. Class meets entirely outdoors. Learning takes place directly in natural surroundings. There are typically combined age groups of children ages three to seven years old. Risk-taking in play is encouraged and appreciated. Teachers do not present formal lessons to the children. They facilitate learning by acting as models and mentors. Teachers monitor the physical space for hazards but are largely hands-off during their time with the children. They rarely intervene during play which allows children to problem-solve and socialize without adult interference. Some of the most well-known forest kindergartens include Auchlone in Scotland and the Stekkjaras School in Iceland. Others can be found in Australia, Korea, India, Israel, Great Britain, Canada, and Norway just to name a few.
What is a Nature Preschool?
In comparison, American nature preschools combine outdoor learning with widely accepted early childhood education practices. Simply defined, nature preschool is a foundational early childhood experience that fosters learning through interaction with and in nature.
In many states, in order to be termed a preschool the program must meet established state licensing requirements. (This means an entirely outdoor preschool is an improbable feat.) Most nature preschools are affiliated with a nature center, park, farm or church organization though some are completely independent schools. There are usually indoor classrooms and restrooms which act as a home base during the course of the day. Fifty percent (or more) of the class time is spent outside. During outdoor learning children are encouraged to explore and play. Through routine interaction in nature and an open-ended approach to outdoor play, children build skills across development domains. As a way to provide authentic assessment of the children’s skills, many nature preschools balance informal outdoor learning with extensions to document the children’s adventures. Examples include artistic or written reflection, graphs or records of investigations and photographs of outdoor learning in action.
A growing body of research shows the positive effects on child development are real. The No Child Left Inside Act is proof that members of congress are starting to understand the value of time spent in nature. The nature preschool movement is growing.
Where can you find a Nature Preschool in Baltimore?
Irvine Nature Center helps families and children explore nature — and was recently awarded accredited status by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). If you are a parent and would like to learn more about The Nature Preschool for your child, please contact the director, Monica Wiedel-Lubinski at Monica@ExploreNature.org. Visit the website to enroll at www.ExploreNature.org or preview the blog www.naturepreschool.wordpress.com. Irvine has a wonderful array of public programs including the Children’s Nature Semester, Muddy Buddies and the Earth Friends Co-op for homeschool students.
If you are an educator or administrator seeking to green your preschool program, join us for the third annual Nature Preschool Conference June 6-8, 2014. This nationally acclaimed conference is approved for up to 19 clock hours by MSDE. Visit www.ExploreNature.org to learn more.
Photo Credit: The Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center