Nature School: Why You Should Consider It
Here at Tales of a Mountain Mama, we know the importance of getting kids outside on a regular basis. There are so many benefits to outdoor play: kids get sunlight at key hours of the day which aids in mood regulation and sleep cycles; being outdoors encourages more running, jumping, swinging so kids are burning off energy and staying healthy; and they can engage in risky play that boosts their confidence and helps them to navigate future risks when they are perhaps outside the watchful eye of an adult.
But we also know that not everyone has the privilege or the capacity (or the desire!) to homeschool their kids and take them outside during the day, and many members of our community (myself included!) rely on childcare or school during the workweek.
However with preschool-aged programming becoming more academic, many teachers and schools do not focus on getting kids outside enough. Research shows though that young kids learn best by playing, not through sitting at a desk or doing worksheets. And what better environment to encourage play than outdoors?
About Nature Schools
A brief history of nature-based schools
Nature-based schools originated in Denmark in the 1950s due to a lack of indoor spaces for preschool programming. The idea spread throughout the Nordic countries and Germany in the following decades. In 1966, the first nature preschool opened in the U.S. in New Canaan, Connecticut. In 2012, there were around two dozen nature-based schools in the U.S.
Nature-based schools are quickly on the rise in the U.S., especially since Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which detailed the importance of children being outside, especially in our increasingly indoor, tech-focused society. He outlined how many of our kids these days have “nature-deficit disorder,” a term he coined to describe children’s lack of outside time and interaction with natural spaces in their day-to-day lives.
To try to address this problem within the context of the reality of most parents’ day-to-day lives of needing to work and find childcare, nature schools have been proliferating across the U.S. in the past decade or so, with hundreds now operating throughout the country. And during the COVID pandemic, a renewed interest for outdoor classrooms, meals, and play emerged as evidence was clear that the illness spread far more easily in indoor spaces.
Even my kids’ public elementary school built an outdoor cafeteria, and the kids there got to eat outdoors in all sorts of weather (I love that!)
Is a nature school right for your family?
But how do you evaluate if it’s a viable option for your family? My family has experience with nature preschools in two cities and with nature-based programming like summer day camp. I’ll share what I’ve learned along the way and how my kids have benefitted from access to these programs!
“Nature schools” can vary in how much time is spent outside, in what kinds of natural environments, certification of teachers and type of curriculum. Some nature-based schools have indoor classrooms for inclement weather or part of the day, but some are entirely outside with no indoor space. There are pros and cons to each of these.
If a school or program is entirely outside, it means that the kids are outside in all kinds of weather. But there is also the risk that school may close if the weather is dangerous. For example, our school in Austin was open all the time even in thunderstorms because they had an indoor classroom. On the flipside, our daughter’s current school does not have any indoor space, so they close for thunderstorms or cold (defined here as windchill below 22 degrees).
In schools with no building or classroom, kids get good at being comfortable in lots of different weather and become very adept at other skills: like going to the bathroom outside! Our current school has a composting toilet for poop but most kids pee on trees, or teachers dig catholes if kids need to poop while on a hike. My 4-year-old is an expert at “nature pees,” and she has taken these skills learned at school on our backpacking and hiking adventures.
Types of nature schools
Nature schools also vary in the hours offered and what ages they serve. These can be anything from part-time (1x/week or month) enrichment programs for homeschoolers or afterschool offerings for public school, spring break or summer camps, part-time preschool (typically ~4 hours/day for kids ages 3-6 years old) or even nature-based schools that run from preschool to high school.
My son does outdoor preschool 3 days/15 hours a week! It has been an incredible program for him. We have seen huge progress in emotional regulation, ability to put words to what he wants/needs, skills in playing with others, etc. It is 100% outdoors no matter what the weather. They even use a composting toilet!TMM Team Member Kara
There are also farm schools, where kids interact daily with animals and work on farm chores. Or simply nature-focused in-home childcare with a caregiver who prioritizes time outside. Waldorf schools are another option where kids tend to be more immersed in natural environments than a typical public school, and can run from preschool to high school in some cases. These are usually private schools, but there are a handful of public charter Waldorf schools operating in the U.S. now too (these are mainly in the Western U.S., but you can see them on a map here).
My son goes to a Waldorf-inspired garden school. They spend most of the day outside. His growth this year has been incredible, especially in his emotional regulation and social skills.TMM Team Member Jen
How to find a forest school near me?
Finding a nature school in your area can start with a Google search, but for a more thorough and comprehensive database of schools in the U.S. and Canada, you can check out the Outdoor School Directory from Run Wild My Child. For the U.K, the Forest School Association has a directory as well.
Search for a school in your area:
- https://runwildmychild.com/outdoor-school-directory/ (In U.S. and Canada)
- https://forestschoolassociation.org/find-a-forest-school-provider/#!directory/map (In the UK)
If you do have a flexible work schedule or are an at-home parent, another great option to meet friends and get your kids outside is by starting your own nature-based co-op or join an already created one through the Free Forest School program (now called “Our Outdoors”).
When my youngest was a year old and not yet in childcare, I spent one or two days a week going to a FFS meetup nearby where we lived – I came to love some of the greenbelt spaces near my home and met my very best friend there.
A group of friends and I started a co-op (free) forest/nature preschool on forest service land because we couldn’t find a local one available. We all loved the idea of nature being the teacher, and loved watching the kids take ownership of our little space, watching the seasons change and getting immersed in play. We took turns planning some basic activities and let the kids lead from there.TMM Team Member Mary
Affordability and access
We also recognize money can be a barrier for some families in terms of access to nature-based preschool programming. But there might still be options in your area. For example, the first nature school my older daughter attended seven years ago (and my younger daughter attended last year) was run by our city’s parks and recreation department.
Because it was run by the city, the tuition fees were very reasonable compared to other preschools in our area. Additionally, they offered 50% off scholarships for low-income families, making it even more affordable.
The forest school my daughter attends now is run by a non-profit and offers “forestships” scholarships for families who are not able to pay for the full tuition price. Even with tuition-affordability programs, forest preschools still might not be accessible to all children. According to a 2017 survey by the Natural Start Alliance, only 3 percent of children attending nature preschools were Black or African-American, 7 percent were Latino/a, and 1 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native.
One problem with access to nature-based schools is that in most states, they aren’t able to be licensed: currently, only Colorado and Washington offer early-childhood education licensing to outdoors preschools. And without licensing, they are unable to accept vouchers or other state funds that assist low-income families with paying for childcare, limiting access to children in these families. Unfortunately, it’s something to consider if your family relies on these programs to help pay for childcare.
My older son went to a forest preschool in Washington State. They issued out Oaki rainsuits, and they were outside each day regardless of the weather. It was located at a state park, and they got to explore the forest and a rocky beach. They hiked, played in the mud, did crafts, made music with natural materials, etc. He loved it!TMM Team Member Rebecca
How to Dress for Nature School
You’ve found a nature school in your area and have enrolled your child–now comes the hard part of figuring out how to dress them everyday to enjoy their time outdoors! Since in most cases they will be exposed to all sorts of weather, it’s important to have the gear to keep them warm in cold weather, dry in wet weather, and protected from the sun.
Cold or wet weather
Cold weather (especially cold, wet days!) might be the hardest ones to keep kids comfortable. Slush and snow can be super fun to play in, but for prolonged time outside, they can make kids wet and freezing, so you’ll want to make sure they are dressed appropriately in layers.
Base layers will keep heat next to their body and keep them warm even if they get a bit wet. Wool is amazing at this, and we highly recommend using wool base layers. Wool can feel daunting to care for however, wool doesn’t really retain a lot of smell/stink, so you can go longer between washings. That being said, it’s also not a “throw in the washer and dryer on hot” material, and some wool needs more specialized care. You can find more info on caring for wool from TMM member Kristin.
Wool can also be pricey, so synthetic base layers can work too. Synthetic might also be better for kids with sensory issues. My four-year-old has worn wool her whole life but has recently decided she doesn’t like the texture (itchiness) of a lot of her woolies, so I’ve been reluctantly resigning myself that we might have to look for synthetics next year. Other team members at TMM love synthetic layers and use them regularly for all sorts of outdoor adventures!
A wool or synthetic base layer is the perfect first layer for cold and wet weather, but the mid- and outer-layer though will differ depending on the temperature. For cooler, rainy days, you can possibly get away without a midlayer and just use a lined rainsuit. There are a lot of great options for rainsuits.
My daughter is currently using the fleece-lined softshell suit Nurmes from Reima (use code MTNMAMA for 20% off at Reima). The fit is generous, it’s super durable, and she will get at least three winters out of it! With proper base and midlayers, she’s worn it in cold (down to the low 20s) and wet weather and stayed warm and cozy. Another great option is the fleece-lined rain suit from Jan and Jul.
For much colder days (think, teens and below), a base layer followed by a fleece or wool midlayer under a windproof and waterproof outerwear is most appropriate. Lots of TMM team members live in cold, snowy climates, so we have tested a wide range of snowsuits. Some favorite snowsuits include the Burton Toddler One-piece suit and the Reima Stavanger.
When we lived in Sweden, my daughter always wore bibs and coats from Polarn O. Pyret, which is also available now to purchase in the U.S. They make super durable and warm outerwear in classic colors, and they offer an Outdoor School Savings Program with a 15% discount for kids going to nature-based schools.
For winter boot recommendations, check out our roundup on the best winter boots for toddlers and kids! This year, my daughter rocked the Keen Kootenay boots, which are warm, easy to put on, and comfortable for longer hikes while at school.
Warm, rainy days
Warm, rainy days aren’t quite as tricky to dress for, since you are aiming to keep them dry but don’t have to worry as much about hypothermia if they end up wet! For warmer rainy days, a breathable, lightweight rain jacket and pants is the best option.
For a very affordable option, we have been pleasantly surprised by this rain suit from Costco from Karbon Kids, though we’ve only been using it a few months so can’t speak to durability. To me, this one feels similar to something like the Tuffo Muddy Buddy suits, which are definitely a favorite for outdoor preschools in the U.S.
The weather is turning warmer here in Western NC, and we are having a lot of very sunny spring days. Since my daughter is a redhead and inherited my fair skin, keeping her from getting burned is almost as difficult as keeping her warm in the winter!
When it’s really warm and sunny, she wears sun hoodies to keep her arms and neck covered up. We have a few different ones we like, but a favorite for sure is the Patagonia Capilene silkweight hoodie. She can be super sensitive about fabric (see above about her new wool aversion!) so she loves how soft and lightweight these feel. They can get wet and dry quickly, which is great for water or creek play at school.
Other great options for sun protective clothing for kids include Hanna Andersson’s MadeForSun hoodie (so many cute prints!) but it’s a bit thicker than the Capilene hoodie. Another lightweight, cheaper option is the Primary StayCool pullover hoodie.
For sunny days, sun hats are also a necessity to avoid having to slather on all the face sunscreen every day. I have found no hat to compare to the quality and functionality of Sunday Afternoon hats. My kids wear both the play hat and the trucker style, and we love both!
American society is often one where kids go from home to a car to a carpool line into a school building, then back again. According to some research studies, American kids only get an average of 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play every day. This is shocking, considering how much time our kids also spend on screens (mine included!)
And I don’t share these statistics to shame or blame anyone (we are all trying our very best!), but rather illuminate how our society has deprioritized outside time and it quite possibly is actively harming our children and ourselves in the process.
So, for those parents who can’t or don’t want to homeschool, nature-based schools might be a great option to consider! I’m also a huge advocate for pushing public schools to incorporate more outdoors time and nature-based play and learning. There are many organizations to support in that endeavor (for example, we have a local program for 5th graders called Muddy Sneakers that my daughter is participating in this year).
And of course, another option for older kids is looking for afterschool programming that gets them outside after the school day ends, when parents might still be working.
My kiddo does Washington Outdoor School which is a free after school program for kids in kindergarten through third grade that is paid for by a grant from OSPI. It takes place entirely outside after school in the school’s surrounding woods and outdoor classroom. It is an amazing program for parents who work or teachers like me who have meetings after school and want a fun place for our kiddos to hang out until we’re done.TMM Team Member Anna
Whatever ends up working for your family, hopefully the above offered some ideas and tips for how to find a nature-based school or program that might be a good fit for your kid. You know them best, where they will thrive, and are doing the best you can!
- Homeschooling Life Outside: Simple Ways to Learn Outdoors
- School Outside
- Teton Science School Camps for Outdoor Kids
Nature School: Why You Should Consider It
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