Soon, Roxborough will boast a highly specialized preschool program that, according to Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education staffer Gail Farmer, is one of only about a dozen in the entire country.
Farmer, Director of Education at the Center, says that while Nature Preschools are still unusual, they’re part of a growing movement in early childhood learning – one backed by a lot of research on the benefits of getting youngsters outside.
“There’s a lot of synergy between developmental milestones [of early childhood] and the types of experiences children have when they’re spending time outdoors in direct contact with nature,” Farmer says.
The Schuylkill Center’s new Nature Preschool, scheduled to begin this fall and operate through mid-June of 2014, will serve ages three to five in morning, afternoon, or full-day sessions. Registration for the sessions (capped at sixteen children with two teachers) is now available through the Center’s website.
Farmer says the Center began to consider launching a Nature Preschool last year, when the Green Woods Charter School, which occupied the main building’s auditorium for ten years, shifted operations to Manayunk because of its growing enrollment.
Launching a new nature-based school was a natural move for the Center, which has over forty years of experience teaching kids about the natural world – particularly important in an age where even young children spend too much time plugged into screens.
Farmer also cites Richard Louv’s 2008 book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” as an important factor in the move to re-introduce nature into childhood education.
“It makes sense that we learn really well outdoors, because our brains evolved in a natural environment,” Farmer says. The Center’s Nature Preschool will still focus on the social, physical and academic skills that make up kindergarten readiness.
Turning a typical preschool ‘inside out’
The curriculum will include language, math and science concepts, motor skills, environmental awareness, introductions to live animals, and plenty of climbing on rocks and digging in the dirt.
“It takes a typical preschool schedule and turns it inside out,” Farmer explains of the program. “Most kids spend the bulk of their time indoors, and then they might have one thirty-minute period outside. But we spend the bulk of our time outside.”
Activities typically done at a desk or in a playroom are transferred to an outdoor setting with areas for writing as well as a range of creative activities, including drama, art and music. And the kids go out rain or shine.
“The only time kids stay in is when the weather is considered hazardous,” Farmer says, sharing the Center’s outdoor mantra: “There’s no such thing as bad weather; only bad clothing.”
Of course there are risks to spending hours outside – parents might worry about things like bug bites or poison ivy, but Farmer says the kids will be in good hands. “Since we’ve been taking kids outdoors since 1965, we know how to manage those risks.”
Farmer appreciates a lot of research over the last decade that points to the physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of getting outside.
More time outdoors is “one piece of the puzzle” of solving America’s childhood obesity epidemic. But she says physical fitness is only one aspect of the program.
An ‘open palette’ for growth
Farmer points to new research showing that children who regularly explore nature have a better ability to withstand “emotional hardships.” This may be because, as Farmer puts it, kids can “recreate the world on a smaller scale” when they play in woods or fields, and learn to express themselves more effectively.
“Nature is such an open palette,” she said. “It really provides kids an opportunity to externalize their internal world.” It also encourages more creative cognitive abilities, including skills like divergent thinking: the ability to come up with more than one solution to any given problem.
Farmer explains that many brain-building toys have what educators call “loose parts” that have multiple shapes or functions – and from damming a stream to building a fort, “nature is full of loose parts.”
And a natural setting isn’t just good for the kids – teachers and parents reap the benefits too. “You’re teaching in a context that automatically captivates the child’s attention,” Farmer says, “so half the battle is already won in getting the child moving forward in the learning process.”
The Center will host an open house for prospective families on April 4th. For registration information, click here.