Can Climbing Trees Replace Preparing for Tests?

Nature-based preschools are becoming increasingly popular. But what are they, and are they effective?

Credit...Angie Wang

This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

When I picked up my son from preschool on a recent summer afternoon, his dirty fingers were stained pink from the raspberries he and his classmates had been hungrily foraging earlier that day. He recounted, nonchalantly, how they’d wandered to the creek that morning and observed how the water had risen higher and ran faster than it had earlier in the year because of recent torrential downpours. It was a hot day, so they took off their shoes and dipped their toes in. He described the refreshing sensation of the brisk water on his feet.

This isn’t what is considered a typical preschool in the United States, at least not by today’s standards. It’s the Ann Arbor Forest School, where the majority of my son’s school day — five hours a day, four days a week; come rain, shine, snow or subfreezing Michigan temperatures — takes place across 260 acres of forest, wetlands, fields, parks and gardens.

Though still somewhat fringe, nature-based preschools have seen a tidal wave of interest in recent years. According to The Natural Start Alliance, an organization devoted to promoting early childhood environmental education, the number of these types of programs in the United States — which tend to focus on loosely structured outdoor play rather than strict academic curriculum — has jumped from 20 in 2008 to more than 250 in 2017. Nearly every state seems to have one, though they tend to congregate near the country’s perimeters: in the Pacific Northwest and California, the upper Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and New England.

But can they offer more for today’s young learners than traditional preschools can? The answer depends largely on how you measure success — and whom you ask. Experts have been debating the merits of play-based versus academic preschool education for much of the last century. And while Mark Sackville-Ford, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University in Britain, said that there’s an intuitive sense (and lots of anecdotal data) that nature-based preschools are worthwhile, further research is necessary to understand the mechanisms at play.

Still, all the key elements of forest school — such as risky play, time in nature, experiential learning and physical activity outdoors — have well documented benefits and research.

Credit...Casey Kreider/The Daily Inter Lake, via Associated Press

Patti Bailie, Ph.D., an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine Farmington, said that nature-based preschools may have risen, at least in part, from a backlash against fluctuating academic and environmental landscapes for young children.

As today’s teachers and students feel pressured by the idea that the path to a “good” college and professional earning potential begins as early as preschool, direct academic instruction is now prioritized over play, music and art. And as the modern 5-year-old is now required to sit still during instruction and to read and memorize vocabulary, kindergarten has become the new first grade, and preschool has become kindergarten-prep.

At the same time, outdoor time for children is dwindling.

In a study published in 2012, for instance, researchers from the University of Washington surveyed nearly 9,000 preschool-aged children across the country and found that just about half went outside to play at least once a day with a parent. In another survey of 830 American mothers published in 2004, the majority (85 percent) said that their children played outside less than they did even a few years prior; and 70 percent said that while they played outside daily when they were kids, only 31 percent of their own children did so.

Some experts have called this downward trend in outdoor time “nature deficit disorder,” a term coined by Richard Louv, a journalist and the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children and Nature Network, in his seminal 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods.” American pediatricians have even gone so far as to start prescribing outdoor time to children to combat a range of issues, including obesity and depression.

Can nature-based preschools be a possible antidote to these woes? Originating in Scandinavia in the early 1950s, the first nature-based preschool to open in the United States was the New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut in 1967.

Most such schools admit children between ages 3 and 6, and prioritize time spent learning and playing in nature rather than doing structured, pre-determined activities in a classroom. Picking up twigs helps develop their pincer grasp, said Tara Habeck, founder of the Ann Arbor Forest School (and, full disclosure, my son’s teacher). Drawing in dirt also bolsters pre-writing skills, Habeck continued, and observing the configurations of pine cones, leaves and flowers helps them learn about patterns. Rolling down hills offers firsthand physics lessons.

But just how much time is spent rolling down hills varies greatly by program. Most places that call themselves “nature-based preschools” might spend half the day outside and the remaining time in a classroom; whereas programs billing themselves as “forest schools,” “forest kindergartens” or “outdoor preschools” will most likely spend three-quarters — if not all — of their day outdoors, in all types of weather.

Unlike children in brick-and-mortar schools, forest school kids are largely left to their own devices with unstructured (but still monitored) free play — to investigate an ant hill, jump in mud or play imagination games. Risky play is also encouraged, whether it’s climbing a tall tree or using a knife to whittle.

Perhaps most alarming to achievement-minded parents is the fact that there is often no direct instruction, at least not in the way one might imagine in a school. According to Dr. Sackville-Ford, the whims of a student’s interests — as well as the season and the weather — might dictate how they spend their day.

Kids in traditional preschools, on the other hand, typically spend more time inside and are less likely to venture out in inclement weather. In one study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015, for instance, researchers from Seattle observed 98 children across 10 preschools in the area for four days at each school. They found that most of the children’s activity (73 percent) was sedentary and just 8 percent of their day was spent on outdoor free play.

Whereas a traditional preschool might have 11 to 25 students with two teachers, class sizes in nature-based preschools tend to be smaller, with six students for every teacher.

While there’s no doubt that childhood access to green space is associated with certain benefits — including improved mental health, decreased chance of nearsightedness, and reduced symptoms of ADHD and hyperactivity — nature-based preschools provide more than mere access to the outdoors.

Though it may sound terrifying to today’s helicopter parent, children who engage in risk-taking tend to reap many benefits, including improved motor function, risk assessment, problem solving and resilience.

Outdoor programs also give youngsters lessons in how to be ecologically conscious stewards of the environment, said Dr. Bailie, such as compassion toward plants and animals, the importance of picking up litter and how to garden.

Spending meaningful time outdoors can also strengthen a child’s foundation for literacy even before she’s taught how to spell a single word, said Bailie. Listening to and identifying bird and other nature sounds, for instance, can prepare her to recognize basic word sounds.

There is one — albeit small and limited — longitudinal study of a forest school program that observed 11 disadvantaged British youth who participated in a weekly forest school program for three years. The researchers, who published their findings in 2018, reported that compared with when they started the program, the kids showed improved reading, writing and math scores; increased school attendance; and enhanced self-regulation and resilience.

Of course, no educational model is without its weaknesses. Nature-based preschools (as with most preschools in America) are almost always private, and have been criticized for catering mostly to white middle-class families. They also tend to be pricey: according to The Brookings Institution, the average cost of full time center-based day care and preschool for children under 5 runs $5.31 an hour. My son’s forest school, by contrast, breaks down to $11 an hour. Gear like thermal underwear, proper footwear and full body rain suits can get expensive, too, though some programs offer loaner or rental items, and secondhand purchases are encouraged.

There are free nature education programs across the country, such as those offered by Free Forest School, a nonprofit organization, but they typically meet once a week and require a caregiver to be present, so it’s not always accessible to working parents. In general, many outdoor preschools do not operate full time (my son’s runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and can end up working better as a complement to home schooling rather than as a viable option for working parents.

Access to nature can also be tricky in urban areas, though even the most densely packed cities typically have some green space that would fit the bill. A common misconception is that forest schools must take place in a forest, but evergreens, foxes and pine cones are not requirements. In New York, for example, there’s a nature-based preschool at a garden on the Lower East Side and another in Prospect Park, among others. Some programs even take place in the desert.

Additionally, licensing is challenging for providers as authorities are still trying to figure out how to classify and regulate schools without walls. As a result, many programs are connected with existing schools or nature centers, or are licensed as in-home day cares. (Oregon and Washington are the only states currently with pilot programs to license outdoor programs.)

Even the rising popularity brings its own issues. As terms like “nature-based” and “forest school” become buzzwords, experts like Dr. Sackville-Ford are concerned that more places will start adopting those labels without also embracing the full spectrum of practices and underpinnings that go with it.

If you’re interested in sending your toddler to an outdoor school, Louv, whose most recent book is “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life,” recommended seeking preschools that provide hands-on experiences tromping in mud, climbing trees, and learning directly in an outdoor (preferably biodiverse) nature setting. But even if your child’s school doesn’t offer this level of immersion, most experts agree that even a little time spent in nature is better than none.

Anecdotally, I’ve certainly noticed the gains firsthand in my son, who has flourished outdoors after struggling — and bouncing off the walls — at previous preschools. Now, he’s active and bright with improved problem-solving and emotional-regulation skills. Most important, he’s excited to go to school every day. But I also know that nature-based schools are not for everyone. It certainly takes a level of commitment to layer up a 4-year-old for a day spent traipsing through the forest in the middle of Michigan’s harsh winter. But for us, it’s been nothing short of transformative.

[For more on early childhood education, read about the Waldorf method, the costly burden of child care, and the increasing academic demands on young students.]

Katherine Martinelli is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Smithsonian and others. A native New Yorker, she now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., with her family.