It’s morning at the ENC Nature Preschool in Newport Beach, California, and 72 preschoolers are rolling around in a mud pit to make mud pies and “stone soup.”
After hosing off and changing into clean clothes, the children, ages 2-5, hike with their teachers through 5 acres of redwoods and Torrey pines, climb trees, read books and identify insects.
“Everything you can learn in a classroom you can learn better in nature,” preschool director Vanessa Sener said in an interview. “If we see a kid get interested in a ladybug crawling on the ground, we turn that into a monthlong lesson on what it eats, its transformation and how it protects the garden.”
The nonprofit campus is emblematic of a national trend of outdoor preschools that has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 2017 to 2020, the number of nature preschools more than doubled, from 275 to 585 among thousands nationwide, according to the latest data from the Natural Start Alliance. The advocacy group is part of the nonprofit North American Association for Environmental Education.
Interest in outdoor schooling is growing. Multiple reports show that test scores of older students dropped dramatically as they switched to virtual and hybrid learning.
Proponents tout dozens of academic studies over the past two decades showing the physical, mental and social benefits of outdoor learning in contrast with digital education models.
“These studies conclude that children who learn in nature compared to those attending traditional school score higher in reading and writing skills, something our students are severely declining in over the last three years,” Aly Legge of Moms for America, a conservative parental rights group, said in an email. “The only drawback is the red tape from the unions, state and federal governments that will get in the way of parents choosing the best educational options for their children.”
State officials are discussing how to license outdoor schooling and unlock funding earmarked for underserved communities.
In 2020, Washington state had more than 50 nature preschools and Illinois had more than 20, according to the Natural Start Alliance. Washington became the first state to permanently license outdoor preschools in 2021.
Washington’s law followed a pilot program that developed standards for emergency weather policies, risk assessment, indoor space requirements, classroom ratios and curriculum. The law requires teachers to provide emergency shelter for children in the event of a lightning storm, wind speed above 25 mph, a natural disaster, or temperatures above 100 degrees or below 20.
Such legislation has drawn support from an unlikely mix of environmentalists and conservative-leaning school choice advocates frustrated by campus shutdowns during the pandemic.
“Research in environmental education points out that children need to first develop environmental awareness before they develop a sense of interest and efficacy needed to care for the natural world around them,” said Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor of education at the University of Virginia.
Lawmakers cannot ignore research showing “outdoor education is beneficial for the physical, social, mental and emotional health of children,” Ms. Legge said.
The concept of a “forest preschool” dates to 1950s Denmark and makes children more self-reliant, said Martha Cheney, an associate dean of education at Walden University.
“Since then, they have grown in popularity in Europe and around the world,” said Ms. Cheney, an early education specialist. “The model requires some extended natural space to implement, so it may not be practical in all settings.”
In Southern California, ENC Nature Preschool operates year-round, and the outdoor setting kept the school from closing during the state’s strict pandemic lockdowns.
Ms. Sener, a preschool teacher for 20 years, said she gets “teary-eyed” when thinking about preschoolers still learning indoors nearly four years into the pandemic.
“The kids who succeed best in nature preschools are the ones who do not succeed sitting at a desk in a classroom with four walls,” she said.
Illinois state Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Democrat, introduced two bills in 2020 to create an outdoor preschool pilot program. Neither bill has moved forward since 2021.
The Colorado Department of Early Childhood is drafting a rule package to increase outdoor preschool access, focusing on emergency shelter and sanitation concerns. The package has slowed in the face of questions such as whether a camping knife is an appropriate learning tool for young children.
Some educators support extending the package to older grades as well. Juniper Ridge Community School, a public charter school in Grand Junction, Colorado, has experimented with outdoor learning for one of its kindergarten classes.
“I believe this is a feasible and cost-effective program once basic elements are in place,” Kathleen Mumaw, Juniper’s head of school, said in an email. “Most everything comes from the outdoors, so there is no need to buy expensive tablets and so-called learning materials. Nature replenishes itself if treated right.”
Outdoor schooling faces high hurdles in the U.S. — especially in states with long seasons of harsh rain, sun, wind and snow.
More studies are needed to assess the model, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
“While outdoor preschools provide a unique opportunity for young children to engage in physical activity while cultivating some developmentally appropriate skills, this emerging trend lacks evidence-based research of its overall benefits, including whether it provides a strong foundation for academic success,” said Weade James, the group’s senior director of development and research.
In some states, it is easier to create outdoor programs on existing campuses, said Rebecca Huber, an early childhood lecturer at Towson University.
“It can begin with developing a small outdoor space, such as a raised garden, that can be expanded over time to include a pond, a nature path or other elements based on the space available,” said Ms. Huber, a former preschool teacher.
These challenges are worth hashing out if U.S. officials ever shutter schools again, said Victoria Damjanovic, an assistant professor of education at Northern Arizona University.
• Sean Salai can be reached at email@example.com.
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