Nature preschools and forest kindergartens may sound more fun than foundational. But this nontraditional approach to early learning is gaining popularity for teaching the basics while getting kids away from screens and out into nature. And now Antioch University in Keene has begun offering a teacher education program for nature-based curricula and programs schools.
Heather Klauber's 9-year-old son Rory dreaded school. He was afraid of making mistakes, afraid to be creative, afraid to or try. The anxiety over school was so bad it gave him headaches.
So it's understandable that Klauber gets a little emotional when she talks about pulling him out of a traditional school system in favor of nature-school.
"It's like a totally different child. He loves school, he loves learning, he loves being--he has a lot of pride in how far he's come and what he's able to accomplish. What I love is that his learning isn't going to be, 'Well I did this math page and this science chapter.' It's all connected. And I love that in his mind, a lot of things are really connected. And that he's able to just in the course of a regular day pull things that he's learned here, into a context, that many kids couldn't."
Klauber's son is a student at The Nature of Things, a pre-K through eighth grade private, nature-based elementary school in Nashua. While this is the only nature-based elementary, nature preschools and Forest Kindergartens are cropping up around the state including Live and Learn Early Learning Center in Lee, Blue Heron School in Holderness and the Acorn School on the Seacoast.
The concept itself is not new. Nature-based schools first took root in Scandinavia in the 1960s before slowly making their way across Europe. They started showing up in New England about five years ago.
David Sobel is on the faculty at Antioch University, and says the school decided that the time was right to get involved.
"We sensed that there was this emergent tide in people that were interested in place-based education, especially early childhood education with a nature focus. You know it's been developing in Europe over the last 20 years and now these kinds of programs are showing up in the United States and there's also the broader nature and childhood movement that sort of emerged after Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods. "
Over the past year, Antioch University’s Department of Education has been holding workshops to teach educators about nature-based programs. The concept is so popular that Antioch is creating a nature preschool education major.
And part of the reason for that popularity, says Debbie Gleason, co-founder of the Nature of Things, is the steady stream of technology kids are ingesting every day.
"Time spent outside, okay , is really important to children's development….[4:07-4:17]Nature has a very calming effect on people and when you're inside one on one with electronic media all the time, you are losing that connection to the real world and real people."
The goal of nature-based programming is to get kids outside while simultaneously teaching them how to think critically, count and experiment with the scientific method, says Laura Mammarelli, director of the Blue Heron School at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, which is a Montessori Nature Preschool in Holderness.
"A great example is we have a box with compartments labled zero to nine. And we can, 'can you go find three acorns, four sticks and five leaves. So they are outdoors and they are counting but they are doing it with natural materials."
Not to mention in nature, Gleason says, they are allowed to be the scientists they are.
"They come into the world taking things apart, picking them up, putting them in their mouth, dropping it, oh where did it go: object permanency. That's all part of the scientific method. We take that away from children, we say, don't touch, don't break it, don't pick it up, put it down, don't put it in your mouth and then we send them to school and we teach them science out of a book."
However, there's not a lot of data detailing academic outcomes of nature-based programs and that can be a concern for some parents.
"When parents are concerned about kids creating a forest quest as part of their Social Studies curriculum and the kids are just outside playing. We can show that kind of program, is just as effective and in some cases more effective at meeting academic standards than the conventional sit at your desk and do the worksheet kind of approach."
There have been studies that looked at the effects of nature education on the wellbeing of the children.
A 1997 study analyzed the outcomes all of the nature schools in Scandinavia since their inception in the late 1960s. The researchers found that those students were absent less often due to illness, had better concentration and greater motor function.
In New Hampshire, the success of these programs are not necessarily tracked by the state, says Patty Ewen, a consultant for the Office of Early Childhood at the New Hampshire Department of Education. Although every school has to meet certain state benchmarks, nature-based programming is an approach, elements of which can be added in varying degrees to any school, class or curriculum.
As approaches go though, she says it's appropriate for New Hampshire.
"What we're really talking about in the context of New Hampshire is environmental based -learning. And there's a reason a lot of us live in New Hampshire and love New Hampshire and protect it. And a lot of that has to do with the environmental beauty and resources that our state has. So when you think about where you live and why you live there, for New Hampshire, nature-based learning is sort of a hand and glove opportunity. I do think it fits In a state like ours where everything is decentralized decision making or what everyone likes to refer to as local control"
Not to mention says Gleason, kids are still learning reading, writing, arithmetic, science and social studies and learning them to state standards; they just do it outside.
"When you go into the real world, who cares what facts you know. You need to know how to solve problems. Most careers today, they aren’t manufacturing. They have to do with teamwork and problem solving and creative thinking. And really you can't teach that out of a book."