What Is a Nature Preschool?

This fall, Rye Nature Center will open a five-day-per-week forest preschool, joining the growing ranks of nature preschools and forest kindergartens that are popping up all over the U.S. Whether they are located in the Arizona desert, the temperate rain forest of Washington state, or Central Park in New York City, nature immersion is at the core of their mission. Natural Start Alliance estimates that there are about 90 nature preschools in the US, and this number is growing.

The nature preschool phenomenon grew out of the environmental education and nature center movement of the 1960's, with the first nature preschool opening at the New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut in 1967. Nature preschools typically follow a nature-based curriculum that follows the seasons and is guided by state or national education standards. They aim to foster social, physical, and cognitive development through nature immersion. Many nature preschools aim to spend at least 50% of the school day outdoors, even in inclement weather. Within a structured curriculum, children also learn through free play and interaction with their peers. By initiating their own projects, such as making a see-saw from logs or setting up a "mud bakery," they engage in problem solving and complex social interaction that is essential to their development.

Full day forest kindergartens are more common in northern Europe, particularly in Germany, where they are now eligible for government subsidies. Children in forest kindergartens usually spend the entire time outdoors in all weather, and might not use any enclosed shelter. In the U.S., as at Rye Nature Center, these are typically afterschool programs. Forest kindergartens encourage spontaneous learning and discovery, building resiliency, and learning to take on risks, often without a structured academic curriculum.

Nature preschools and forest kindergartens are diverse in their goals and methods, but nonetheless they have place-based education as their touchstone. They treasure the uniqueness and diversity of their immediate physical and cultural environment, rather than adopting a homogeneous curriculum that can be packaged, sold and used in any unspecified environment. By teaching children to value and understand the nature that surrounds them, they encourage them to preserve it for the future.

Rachael Pothula, Early Childhood Education Specialist