In Our Nature: Are Forest Preschools the Way of the Future?

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Editor’s note: A growing body of research suggests that forest preschools—also known as outdoor preschools—provide kids with positive early childhood experiences. In the following story, we seek to understand how public schools are using the lessons of the forest preschool movement to bring those benefits to more kids, in more places. For information about the history of forest schools, read our previous coverage:

At the Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in Georgia, there are no hallways. Instead, the classrooms are connected by a path through tree-lined walkways. The 600 students range in age from kindergarten to eighth grade, and they all spend at least 40 minutes outside each day, according to Chattahoochee Hills Principal Patrick S. Muhammad. The kids take at least two lessons per week outside, and they work in the school’s garden. Once a month, students and teachers spend the day exploring the woods, trails and wildlife around the school. Even the middle schoolers go outside for recess every day. 

At Chattahoochee Hills, a typical math lesson might involve learning about angles—but the students will be assigned to find those angles in the world around them. 

“They would come outside with a ruler and identify where they see the angles in a natural setting,” Muhammad says. “Maybe it’s the angle of a petal of a flower, or of the fencing around the [soccer] goals.”

These opportunities are part of a coordinated effort to help kids, including those in public schools, spend more time outdoors during what are often heavily booked schools days. The population at Chattahoochee Hills is 85% Black, 10% Caucasian and 5% students of other races, according to Muhammad. It’s also a charter school, which means that caregivers in the county can apply to send their kids to the publicly funded program every year. (Some funding also comes from grants, if the state and local funding doesn’t quite cover the school’s needs.) Each year, applications are entered into a lottery system, and Muhammad says the school still ends up with a 200-plus waitlist after the lottery closes. 

Chattahoochee Hills’ focus on arts, agriculture and the environment sets it apart from other public school options in the area, which may be why the program has become so popular. But the school’s innovative outdoor learning concepts are helping to fuel a movement beyond Georgia, too. 

“Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically. The research strongly suggests that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves,” says Richard Louv, author of Last Child In the Woods and the cofounder of the Children and Nature Network, which seeks to improve access to nature for all kids.

Children sit under a tent for an outdoor preschool lesson

“Schools with natural play spaces and nature learning areas appear to help children do better academically,” says Richard Louv, cofounder of the Children and Nature Network.

In recent years, forest preschools have taken off in the U.S. as the benefits of time spent outdoors have become more well-known. Research shows that outdoor time may positively influence children’s health and holistic development, providing youngsters with benefits like improved emotion regulation, the chance to develop self-confidence beyond the walls of a traditional classroom, and more resilient mindsets.

But as this type of schooling becomes more prevalent, controversies abound. For the most part, popular forest schools tend to be private and pricey, attracting mostly middle-income white students from urban and suburban areas, according to a 2017 survey from the Natural Start Alliance. Challenges associated with licensing the schools means these programs remain more expensive and less convenient for working parents, too, compared to public school options. (At the time of this writing, Washington had recently become the first state in the U.S. to license forest preschools.)

That’s why Chattahoochee Hills’ program is so revolutionary: It’s a school within the government’s public school system that provides many of the benefits we know about from research around forest preschools, and it’s located in a relatively rural area. The school and others like it are taking the lessons from forest programs and applying them to a public school setting, providing children with opportunities for risky play, child-led learning and a greater number of hours spent outdoors—all benefits researchers say the forest preschool movement provides.

The benefits of risky play

There are a few key factors present at forest schools that can be translated to programs across the country. The first is something called “risky play.”

Researchers define risky play as taking part in mostly unsupervised activities that push boundaries; for most of us, risk amounts to conducting physical, emotional or social experiments to see what we can withstand. Playing on a slippery mud slope during a rainstorm would qualify as risky play, as would climbing trees or making up games in an area where there are pointy objects nearby. At Chattahoochee Hills, time spent gathering insects and exploring the preserve around the school might also be considered risky play, as the children interact with various unknown elements. Rough and tumble play is also risky, as it involves a chance that children could hurt each other while they’re wrestling. 

According to a 2018 study, participating in risk-taking behavior is essential for positive social development, especially in young children. A 2008 literature review found that risky play benefits kids by igniting positive self-esteem, increasing levels of enjoyment and excitement and offering a sense of pride. In a 2011 editorial, author Helen Sandseter suggested that the key benefit of risky play was “the lessons for life that [kids] unconsciously learn while practicing handling risks.”

“These types of activities can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves and [it gives them the] power to make independent decisions,” Louv says. 

This comes into play at Chattahoochee Hills, too. “[Students often] resort to old-fashioned, inquisitive play, using natural objects and hiding places and make-believe adventures,” Muhammad says. “This ‘prehistoric play’ has reduced the number of fights and disagreements during play. Yes, there are more scraps and bruises and even tears, but the bounce back and recovery … builds character.”

Charts and magnifying glasses used to identify tree leaves

At Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle, children use magnifying glasses to get up-close with the natural world.

The benefits of child-led learning

Second, child-led learning appears to have incredible effects on kids’ self confidence. While this isn’t exclusive to the outdoors, the exploratory nature of forest programs seems to encourage this kind of learning. 

At Chattahoochee Hills, Muhammad notes that the children have been helpful in solving a school-wide problem: how to make the 1,700-foot garden grow enough food to feed all of the students at lunch. 

“I made it a word problem,” Muhammad says. “I have 585 students and the garden is 1,700-square feet. How many square feet do I need to feed each child? They decided we would have to grow vertically because we wouldn’t have enough space if we grew horizontally.”

This led to the students learning about hydroponic, vertical farming. They cut hoses, planted vegetables and helped teachers maximize the space. Now, the garden has more than 168 plants that provide lunches to students each week. They’re well on their way to reaching their goal of feeding all the students. Eventually, Muhammad would like them to be able to go into the garden to pick their own food if they don’t like what’s being offered in the cafeteria for lunch that day.

Research shows that this child-led learning style can have major benefits for children. One seminal 1988 study found that child-led learning was more effective than adult-led learning when it came to improving social development, especially for kids growing up in poverty. And, in 2013, a group of researchers in Wales found that when you took kids outside and let them guide learning, perceptions of “overachievers” and “underachievers” disappeared. Those researchers concluded that, in the outdoors, “children may have had the opportunity to reconstruct themselves as strong, competent children rather than as ‘underachieving’ pupils.” 

A 2015 study looked at a group of 4- and 5-year-olds and asked them to take part in activities initiated by adults, as well as activities they came up with themselves. While both setups showed positive increases in learning, the kids demonstrated better self-regulation and an increased awareness of their own emotional states when they initiated the activities themselves, suggesting that self-guided activities “maximize opportunities for children’s autonomy and control.”

The benefits of time outside

There’s also a huge benefit to being outside in general, especially when you’re young. A 2018 meta-analysis of dozens of studies found that engaging in physical activity, like sports, outdoors can positively influence a child’s cognitive and emotional functioning overall. There are also physical benefits for kids who spend more time outside, according to a 2008 study, including lower rates of obesity and better physical health overall.

Louv highlights the idea of “sensory dysfunction,” a phenomenon that has cropped up as our access to technology and excessive distraction has increased.

“Today, children and adults who work and learn in a dominating digital environment expend enormous energy blocking out many of the human senses—including ones we don’t even know we have—in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes,” he says. Time outdoors can combat this dysfunction, potentially reducing the symptoms of ADHD and calming children to help them focus

Muhammad says he sees the benefits in the kids at Chattahoochee Hills every day. He’s been an administrator in public urban schools for 18 years, but only started working at this school last year; he says the differences were immediately evident.

“My students have learned how to value the life of something as small as a ladybug,” he says. “And if they’re learning how to value that small life, it becomes impossible to devalue human life. The respect for the ladybugs is multiplied in the respect they show to their colleagues and teachers.”

He also says time outside seems to tire the kids out, so the environment in the indoor classrooms is calmer than he’s seen in other schools. “They exert so much energy outside,” he says. “Every day, rain or shine, they get 30 to 40 minutes outdoors. It’s much more calming, and we just started incorporating yoga indoors, too.”

Children derive numerous benefits from spending time outside during the school day. Now, educators are grappling with how to take the movement mainstream.

Taking these learnings mainstream

While Chattahoochee Hills is at the forefront of the movement to bring outdoor benefits into the public school system, other schools are slowly following suit.

On the other side of the country, for instance, in the Shelton School District on the Puget Sound’s Oakland Bay in Washington state, kindergarten through third graders visit parks to study beach and sea life as part of their normal curriculum. Recently, the district’s sixth graders collected data and samples from local beaches to use back in their science classrooms. This is all part of the district’s efforts to create “field STEM [Science Technology, Engineering and Math] experiences that are enriching and meaningful,” says Maryan Marshall, the district’s executive director of instructional programs for prekindergarten through sixth grader. Ideally, all 4,400 students in the district will learn about science via outdoor excursions this year, in partnership with an outdoor education organization called the Pacific Education Institute.

Despite these fledgling examples, bringing risky play, child-led learning, and outdoor time into public schools can be a challenge. For one, Louv notes that public school teachers are often asked to do too much, and adding outdoor activities means confronting district bureaucracies. There’s also a fear of litigation around letting kids take part in risky play; what if they get hurt and the school gets sued?

Plus, it can be hard to find the right teachers for programs like these. Muhammad is a farmer himself and thus finds it easier to teach kids about the environment and the importance of agriculture, since those things are also important to him. He says he has to turn away a lot of teachers who don’t have an experience or love for these things.

“If I see a teacher getting dirty, that’s fine,” he says. “But I have to find the teachers who want to get dirty and are also credentialed.”

“Connecting students to nature is generally not taught in teachers colleges [either],” Louv says.

The next step to bringing these kinds of innovations to schools in your community may be getting involved with district decision-making, Louv suggests. Can your district implement a garden tended by the children? What about monthly outings and hikes? Every small change matters but, as Louv notes, teachers and schools need the help of parents and policy makers to make changes happen.

Looking at other countries provides some hope. In Norway, for example,  kids at every preschool and early childhood education center spend several hours outdoors every day, year-round. The schools there aren’t called forest schools; instead, time in nature is simply seen as an integral part of any curriculum.

All photos by Wondercamp. 

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