If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson

This quintessential quote from Rachel Carson has always resonated with me, ever since I started a parent-child art program for preschoolers two decades ago and discovered quite by accident the intricate relationship between art, nature and human development. In reality, it was not so much an accident as something my young students – aged 2, 3 and 4 – taught me. By partnering with them and seeing and experiencing the natural world through their eyes and senses, infinite possibilities for creativity, discovery and relationships unfolded. Years later, I was hired as the art specialist at a nature-based preschool and my eyes were opened to a preschool philosophy that made perfect sense to me.

Now, several years further down the road (or perhaps down the trail in the woods), I have even greater perspective and appreciation for the value of a nature-based preschool education. One of the great creative thinkers of all time, Albert Einstein, summed it up simply: “Look deeper into nature and you will understand everything better.” Within nature we find lessons, experiences, opportunities, materials, inspiration and metaphors for learning in all curricular areas: social/emotional, language development, early numeracy and literacy, STEAM and environmental literacy, executive functioning, sensory integration and fine and gross motor skills development. This all happens without much need for the four walls of a primary colored classroom or the stereotyped images of playground equipment and toys.

What does a nature-based preschool look like, if not the images that we typically associate with preschool? While there are many variations and possibilities, from schools with traditional buildings that have access to the outdoors to programs that meet exclusively in the woods, I have boiled it down to these essential elements:

Extended Time Outdoors Every Day

Authentic nature-based preschools live by the motto, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Everyone needs access to the proper gear, from sun hats to snow suits to rain boots and rain suits, and teachers need to be properly suited up as well (for their own comfort and to be role models for the children). When everyone is properly dressed for the weather, the possibilities for outdoor learning and fun are limitless. All-season, all-weather outdoor play opens doors to a range of joyful learning opportunities that emerge naturally from the children’s play: from in-depth observation and study of seasonal changes to the joys and discoveries inherent in warm sunny breezes, crisp crunchy leaves, mud puddles, damp decomposing logs or a slick, snowy hillside. Children at nature-based preschools spend much of the day outdoors, and when project time takes place indoors, it is often inspired by or related to their outdoor experiences and observations.

Access to Nature

Ideally, nature-based preschools have access to a range of outdoor environments that support a variety of different kinds of play and learning. At the Eastern Ridge School in Great Falls, Va., for example, a home-like setting gives way to a large meadow for expansive play, plus mud and sand pits, natural climbing features, vegetable and native gardens and access to woodlands and hiking trails. This allows for adventuresome play, imaginative play and quiet, contemplative play. It also provides encounters with a wide range of plant and animal species native to the area, as well as variation in surfaces, textures and elevations to navigate. It invites opportunities for stewardship, gardening, quiet observation and mindfulness. These practices open the door to vast learning experiences, including hands-on project work incorporating science, math, literacy connections and inspiration for creative art and writing activities. Nature play allows children to progress toward their developmental milestones and objectives, while satisfying their natural curiosity and having fun.

Teachers as guides, who genuinely love being outdoors

Teachers in a nature-based preschool understand fully that stepping back is sometimes more important than stepping in. Allowing for a degree of risk, both emotionally and physically, gives children the opportunity to learn what their minds and bodies are capable of and builds self-confidence and resilience. In the course of nature play, one might trip over a root or tinker with rocks and sticks as tools. These are lessons that transcend the moment and translate to a willingness to trust oneself and to try new things. The imperfection of nature makes it the perfect teacher.

By allowing nature play to unfold uninterrupted, preschoolers have opportunities to engage deeply in active, imaginative and cooperative play. Creativity, problem solving and social skills are just a few of the fruits of this essential “work” of childhood. Teachers lend support without providing all the answers. They wonder aloud along with the children to help guide them when necessary. A skillful nature-based preschool teacher allows the children to own the process and learn from mistakes. At the same time, teachers in a nature-based preschool must feel at home in the outdoors, sharing not only the wonder at what nature has to offer, but also a level of expertise so that they can provide scaffolding, support and structure when needed.

This group of industrious 3- and 4-year-olds was intent upon building a fort in the woods. Their teacher set the stage by asking questions and modelling some strategies for balancing branches, just enough to launch them into negotiations, trial and error and working through various social challenges until they successfully achieved their goal. Frustration, persistence and healthy risks all factored into their ability to bring the idea to fruition. From gross motor skills to executive functioning, cooperation to concepts such as balance and geometry, it is hard to imagine a prescribed, teacher-directed lesson that would impart the same level of confidence, skill acquisition and satisfaction as this spontaneous, visceral experience that emerged for these children at play in nature’s classroom.

In the end, what captivates me about nature-based preschool harkens back to that sense of wonder that comes from giving children the time and space to connect with the natural world that is all around them. They do so joyfully, playfully, sometimes messily and often with great curiosity. Without fail, the natural world responds as a reliable, consistent teacher – reaching learners of all kinds.