Outside Education - Nature Preschools

13 September 2017

get outside for preschool education

A PBS Newshour program featured a completely outdoor preschool in Midland, Michigan recently and jokingly referred to “those crazy Michiganders” that have found success in an all-year-long outdoor preschool. Well, being a Michigan-native myself, as well as a past preschool teacher, I found this concept fascinating. The children in this nature preschool are outdoors no matter what the weather, even on the coldest winter days in Michigan. And the parents have no complaints!

The preschool in Midland is part of a movement to get children out of classrooms with walls and into the great outdoors. This movement are called "Nature Preschools" and they are picking up steam across the U.S. Ten years ago there were barely 20. Today, by one count, the number has grown to nearly 250.

The teachers working in the Midland program, the Chippewa Nature Center, are combining preschoolers’ natural curiosity with the ever-changing outdoor world. It is based on the concept that the outdoors are something that people have spent time in and learned from for generations and generations. My generation grew up outdoors. Many of my peers remember as I do spending whole summer days outdoors. We played outside, as the saying goes, "until the street lights came on." But this freedom to play in the outdoors has changed for our current generations.

The nature preschool teachers in the Michigan school ask parents to look back at their childhood. They ask them what are some of things they remember? Maybe climbing a tree? Was it being covered in mud, stomping in puddles? And if it’s not them, their parents, or their grandparents or some other relative said, I grew up that way. Now, preschoolers in the U.S. often spend most of the day indoors. In contrast, some of these nature preschools don’t even have indoor classrooms. Yet, the alphabet and language skills are still emphasized, and the lab for other skills like learning science and math is all-around outdoors too.

One example of using the outdoors as a lab for science learning in nature preschools is when 3- and 4-year olds learn about the life cycle of a frog. They learn the basics of the life cycle and then going to a pond to catch some. They touch a frog that looks slimy and ewy and icky for them and they’re OK. The teachers gently put the children’s hands in the water for them, and their faces just glow. Learning in this way, from their own experiences, won’t be forgotten. Children in nature preschools are learning science up close and personal with nature. They are also learning language and communication skills as they explore the outdoors.

Many may question if this type of preschool truly prepares children for kindergarten. Researchers at Michigan State University investigated the academic effectiveness of this Michigan preschool. They found that children at the nature-based center did just as well on literacy measures, language measures, science measures and some brain executive function measures like self-control such as children in the more traditional preschool setting. (If you’re looking more information on young children’s executive function development, check out Harvard University’s Developing Child guide found here.) So, these children in non-traditional, outdoor preschools learned just as much as those in more traditional preschools. And they also found that the rates of learning were fairly equivalent across all the nature preschools they measured. They concluded that a nature-based setting can prepare a child for kindergarten equally as well as a traditional setting.

Even if you don’t have an outdoor or nature preschool that your child can attend, nature can still be a learning environment for you and your little one. Here are five ways to create an outdoor preschool learning experience for your child:

  1. Plan to have an outdoor experience every week. Make it a part of your regular routine to spend time outdoors with your preschooler. If necessary, put it down on your calendar and set up a reminder so you won’t forget. This experience can be as simple as having an outdoor snack and chatting about the natural things you see all around you. Our Chatty-do’s are a good source of topics to explore in your outdoor experiences.  For example, our Chatty-do, How did the sky look today? is an easy one to start with. Also, our Experience Nature activity collection is a great resource for your outdoor experiences.
  2. Include literacy and language arts in your outdoor experiences. These skills can be practiced outdoors just as easily as indoors. Learning the alphabet outdoors is great fun and easy to do with your preschooler. For your scheduled outdoor experience, choose a letter, like B, and go outside and see how many things you can find with that letter. B is for bug, and b is for butterfly, and b is for bird. To make it even more memorable, while you are outside, challenge your preschooler to act out the things they found. Our Skilly-do activity, Butterfly-ing, is perfect for this. You can then go inside and draw pictures of what you found for that letter. Another way to expand this language experience is to ask your little one tell you all about what they found and write it down for them. Then read it back to them. In this way you are combining your child’s outdoor experiences with the written word. This is a basic literacy learning; showing your child that written words can express personal experiences.
  3. Practice noticing changes in the outdoors with your child. Learning to see and accept change is basic to flexible thinking. And, the ability to think flexibly is basic to all learning in school. For instance, learning that the sum of 4 can be made by adding 2 plus 2, or by adding 3 plus 1, or by subtracting 1 from 5 is an example of how math requires flexible thinking, or seeing things in different ways. In the outdoors preschoolers can see many changing things. For example, they can see how things change after a rainstorm. Take some time to go outside after a rainstorm and discover in our Skilly-do activity, What Happens to Water? See how water moves in different ways in different places. When seasons change, from dry to rainy season or winter to spring, there are many similar opportunities to view changes in nature. Take advantage of them!
  4. Involve as many of your child’s senses as possible in outdoor experiences. The more senses involved in an experience, the more enriching and memorable the experience will be for your child. So, when you are outside, don’t just talk about what you see, involve your child’s other senses, too. Outside they can feel the warmth of the sun, the power of the wind, and the coolness of the shade. When you’re outside with your preschooler, you can also listen for sounds you hear, as in our Skilly-do activity, Everything Music. Then, you can go about feeling things in our Chatty do activity, What was the roughest thing you felt today? You can also search out any new or familiar smells in the air as you are outside.
  5. Help your child learn to appreciate and take care of the world outside. Be careful in your investigations to respect your environment. For example, when discovering and looking at bugs, be sure to touch them gently and to put them back into their natural habitat outdoors afterwards. Being sure to pick up all trash and dispose of it in bins is another way children learn to take care of their world in a simple, everyday way. It is our job to take care of the world outside. And when you can, leave your environment better than the way you found it.

To involve your preschooler with nature, all you need are curiosity, joy of exploration, and a desire to discover firsthand the wonders of nature. Preschoolers are naturals at this. We adults take a little longer. But making the effort to start learning and appreciating what the outdoors can uniquely teach all of us-- will be totally worth it. To encourage you in this endeavor, check out my article, Learning Anywhere, Every Day - Champion Science. As usual, I’d love to hear about your outdoor fun! You can give us your feedback right here.