Early Education

Into the woods: When preschoolers spend every class outdoors

Does learning in the leaves offer an advantage that indoor classrooms can’t match? A growing number of parents have decided to find out.

Joshua Doctorow, 4, gets help putting on his mitten from teacher and school co-director Kit Harrington at Fiddlehead Forest School in Seattle. Children spend their entire four-hour day outside, so must be dressed for the elements.

SEATTLE, WASH. — Three-year-old Desi Sorrelgreen’s favorite thing about his preschool is “running up hills.” His classmate Stelyn Carter, 5, likes to “be quiet and listen to birds—crows, owls and chickadees,” as she put it. And for Joshua Doctorow, 4, the best thing about preschool just might be the hat (black and fuzzy, with flaps that come down over his ears) he loves to wear to class.

All three children are students at Fiddleheads Forest School, where they spend four hours a day, rain or shine, in adjacent cedar grove “classrooms” nestled among the towering trees of the University of Washington Botanical Gardens.

In its third year, the program is located less than seven miles from Microsoft, which means while some parents sit in front of computers all day inventing the digital future, the Fiddleheads kids are making letters out of sticks or carting rocks around in wheelbarrows.

Founded in 2012 by Kit Harrington, a certified preschool teacher, and Sarah Heller, a naturalist and science educator, Fiddleheads is part of a larger national trend that goes beyond Waldorf education, which has long emphasized outdoor play even in inclement weather.

There’s the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Mich., founded in 2007, where kids wear hats and mittens during daily outdoor sessions in the frigid winter months. At the All Friends Nature School in San Diego, Calif., which became a nature preschool in 2006, kids often spend mornings making sandcastles at the beach. And at the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Lincoln, Mass., founded in 2008, kids learn to feed farm animals, grow vegetables, and explore the farm’s many acres of wildlife habitat.

Whether the schools are emerging in reaction to concerns that early education has become increasingly academic or simply because parents think traipsing around in the woods sounds like more fun than sitting at a desk, they are increasingly popular. The Natural Start Alliance, founded in 2013 in response to demand from a growing number of nature preschool providers, now counts 92 schools that deliberately put nature at the heart of their programs and in which children spend a significant portion of each day outside, according to director Christy Merrick. That’s up from 20 schools in 2008, when Patti Bailie, a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, counted them as part of her doctoral research.

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A typical day at Fiddleheads starts at 9 a.m., with Desi, Stelyn, Joshua and fellow students zipping up waterproof suits so they can climb on, and sometimes slip off, sopping wet logs; create secret forts under dripping boughs of bright green and examine squirming earthworms in grubby hands. Students go on “listening walks” with their teachers during which they stand in a circle with their eyes closed and name the things they can hear, like wind and rain, when they don’t talk. The kids also eat lunch, sing songs and occasionally squabble under the open sky and towering trees.

Desi’s mom, Judy Lackey, 34, is pleased. “It’s just a magical place,” she said. “In indoor spaces, teachers have planned everything. Here, you never know what you’re going to see.”

While the kids are carefully supervised by trained teachers, the school has a choose-your-own-adventure attitude toward learning. So when students first placed one of those closely examined earthworms in an empty toy watering can during a recent visit, it prompted a conversation with a volunteer teacher, Marnie O’Sullivan, about what kind of homes earthworms might most enjoy. (Hint: Not plastic watering cans.)

“We kind of just think and find what we want to do in our head and we just do it,” Stelyn explained.

Amalie Brenner (left) and Audette Laird, both 3, scurry to catch up with the rest of their class at Fiddleheads Forest School in the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.

There are rules of course, and Stelyn, one of the oldest in the class, is quick to explain them: “If we see a bug, we are careful not to step on it. If we see a pretty leaf, we pick it up and put it in our ‘magic spot.’”

Walking alone onto the park road (which doesn’t allow car traffic anyway) and pretending sticks are swords are also forbidden. But such rules and a few others leave room for plenty of adventures. There’s the carting around of rocks in wheelbarrows, the playing at being (sword-less) pirates, the examining of trees split by lightning, the digging in woodchip piles to make child-sized “nests,” the finding of an unknown seed and the dubbing it a “nothing berry,” and, of course, the running up and down of hills. The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice,” as in “What do you notice about this fallen log?” And, “I notice mushrooms.”

“Some days we’re setting up and we hear eagles calling to each other and we run out and look up,” said Harrington, the co-founder. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder.”

Or as Adele Miroite, 3, put it, with her little hands wrist-deep in a woodchip pile: “I love school.”

Fiddleheads is one of at least 18 similar preschools founded in the greater Seattle area since 2005, according to a recent story in ParentMap, a local parenting magazine. And 18 is apparently not enough. There are 51 children on Fiddleheads’ current waiting list and 143 on its list of families interested in a spot for next year, Harrington said. That’s after the school more than doubled its enrollment from about 20 students in one classroom last year to 50 students in two classrooms this year. And students’ parents, to judge from a small collection picking up their kids on a recent afternoon, aren’t off-the-grid types: they’re attorneys, chief financial officers and TV producers.

“I don’t know if we’re hitting a tipping point yet, but maybe,” said Bailie, who got her start as a teacher at an outdoor preschool program at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland, Ohio. At the time, she said, she only knew of about half a dozen schools in the entire country trying something similar. These days, she teaches a class specifically for would-be preschool teachers who aim to work outside.

Bailie thinks the pushback against standardized testing and growing concern about young children spending too much time on touch-screen devices has helped the market for outdoor schools. She also credited the bestselling 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, which helped popularize the idea that children should spend as much time as possible in the outdoors.

Related: Education myth: American students are over-tested

Children at Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle dig into a pile of woodchips with their teacher (in the magenta jacket), who asks them what they notice as they dig deeper. “It’s warm,” the children say, essentially figuring out for themselves that organic material heats up as it decomposes.

Louv argues passionately in his book that children should play and explore the outdoors in the same unstructured ways their parents, and their grandparents, did before them.

While reducing childhood obesity (8.4 percent of American 2- to 5-year-olds are obese) by increasing physical activity is one of the prime arguments in support of outdoor play, Louv posits that the need goes beyond exercise, arguing that today’s children have fundamentally lost touch with nature.

“Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses,” he writes.

Though they all attempt to address this “nature-deficit disorder,” not all of the new nature preschools are quite as natural as Fiddleheads, which belongs to a type of school usually described as a “forest kindergarten,” characterized by having no indoor space other than an emergency weather shelter. Many “nature preschools,” like Chippewa in Michigan, do have indoor facilities. Bailie and The Natural Start Alliance both count as “nature preschools” schools in which students are outdoors for a significant portion of their day and in which the focus of the curriculum is on the natural world.

Some preschool providers still think time indoors can be a valuable addition to an outdoor-focused day (and some city kids or bookworms might prefer it). There’s also the practical matter of getting licensed. Many states won’t allow a school without a building to receive a license, and unlicensed schools can usually only operate for four hours a day. In fact, that’s a requirement in Washington State and it’s one of the reasons Fiddleheads is only open until 1 p.m.

Then there’s just the practical requirements of spending all that time outdoors. Children need the right clothing, which can be expensive. And even for the die-hards, sometimes it’s just not really safe to have children under 5 playing outdoors.

At the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Massachusetts, where it can get quite cold, director Jill Canelli uses several overlapping sets of guidelines to determine when it’s too cold, too windy or too icy to go outside. If the temperature, with wind chill, is below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance, the kids have an indoor day. That guideline is based on an Iowa Department of Public Health publication, Canelli said. And if the local school district cancels on account of snow, the preschool will usually close too.

“Safety is first,” she said, adding that parents have asked why their children weren’t outside on a given day and she’s had to explain Iowa’s safe temperature guidelines to them. “Children can’t learn if they’re not safe.”

Safety notwithstanding, Deborah Stipek, an education professor at Stanford University who studies early education, is not a booster of the outdoor preschool model. “I have a feeling that this is a flash-in-the-pan idea,” she said.

Students and a teacher work on their coloring in the Magnolia classroom at Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle. Cedar groves like this one, with widely spaced trees and a sturdy understory, offer ideal spots for outdoor classrooms.

Stipek pointed out that excellent natural materials can be provided to children indoors and that setting times when children can freely choose between activities like blocks, art projects and dress-up allows for plenty of self-determined “adventures.” And while she is a strong believer in the benefits children get by spending time outside, she is skeptical of the idea that spending the whole day outside is necessarily better.

“I don’t see benefit of being outdoors doing the same activity as you’d be doing indoors,” Stipek said.

But for the administrators of Fiddleheads, the benefit of children doing the same thing outdoors that they could have done indoors is clear as a babbling brook.

“When I taught indoors every material had a learning goal,” Harrington said of the various items she would put out for her students to play with when she was a Montessori preschool teacher. “Here, the entire classroom is a material. Certainly, the materials we set out are that way, but this classroom has so much more to offer.”

Though there is plenty of evidence that playing outside lowers the risk of obesity, improves balance and agility, calms high-energy children, reduces stress, improves self-regulation, aids healing and soothes the soul, little research specifically on outdoor preschools has been conducted in the U.S. (There is more in Scandinavia, where they are very popular.)

Adel Miroite, 3, sits in the “nest” she carved out for herself in a handy pile of woodchips in her outdoor classroom at Fiddleheads Forest School, located in the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.

Harrington and Heller hope to help change this by opening their school to researchers. The first study, set to start in January, will look at how much children in outdoor schools move compared to children at home or in traditional preschools. The lead researcher is Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at the University of Washington’s Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Most nature preschools are private; tuition at Fiddelheads is $760 per month for five days of four-hour classes. But some programs, like the Chippewa Nature Center in Michigan, have begun to work with their local school districts. Students in the nearby Bullock Creek School District can now attend “nature kindergarten” and even “nature first grade” at their regular public elementary school. And a few city schools have even taken up the forest school mantra. Students at the Brooklyn New School in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn now spend every Wednesday outside in nearby Prospect Park (as long as it’s not raining).

Back in Seattle, Andrew Jay, a former Audubon Center director and non-profit entrepreneur, thinks it’s far past time to take advantage of the low facility costs of outdoor-based programs and open them up to a broader range of families. He is planning to open nine outdoor schools based in Seattle City Parks in the next two years.

“A city park is the most democratic space” for a school, Jay said. “The nature part is amazing. But what hooked me was making it available to all.”

Related: At a school in Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhood, literacy is up and disciplinary problems are down

Jay got the official go-ahead to operate his schools on city land from the parks department in October and now he’s trying to get approval from the city’s education department to qualify for funding as a local public preschool program.

In the meantime there is Fiddleheads, where several children were huddled around Stelyn, who was holding a treasure. With her blonde hair trailing to the edge of her bright yellow rain jacket, she held out a “nothing berry” for all to see.

“I want to see the inside,” said Rowan Wessels, 4.

“OK, but don’t break it any more than that,” Stelyn said, pointing at a nick somebody had made with a rock.

Rowan peered closely at the soft white center of the mystery berry and exclaimed, “It looks like ice cream!”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

*Update: This story has been updated to reflect Hechinger’s standard style.

Caption for lead photo: Greyson Lamb, 3, (left) and Rowan Wessels, 4, look at a praying mantis at Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle. (Photo: Meryl Schenker)

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Lillian Mongeau

Lillian Mongeau is the engagement editor and West Coast correspondent. She primarily covers early education and California education for The Report. Lillian also co-writes an… See Archive