Most toddlers don’t spend their days picking up sticks and chasing centipedes in the forest with their teacher. But for the first time this fall, some preschoolers in Washington state will.
In September, Washington became the first US state to license outdoor preschools, a program that promotes a connection with nature. Forest or nature preschools, as they are called, already exist, but now they will be able to offer full-day programs and financial assistance to families in need.
Outdoor learning is a child-directed and play-based educational philosophy that seeks to connect children with the world around them. There is no one-size-fits-all model but it usually emphasizes teamwork, relationship-building, risk-taking, exploration, and curiosity. Research appears to corroborate (pdf) what we instinctively know—that spending time outdoors is important for children’s development and well-being.
Washington’s decision is part of a growing movement in favor of outdoor learning. It began in Scandinavia and is now spreading around the world, especially in the US, where experts say preschoolers are increasingly stressed.
In a landmark 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, journalist and author Richard Louv wrote that children don’t spend enough time in nature and theorized that this was linked to a host of worrying trends, including the rise in attention deficit disorders, depression, and obesity. He called it “nature-deficit disorder.”
If this was true in the pre-iPhone era, it’s even worse today, in the age of Instagram, TikTok, drones, and virtual reality. A 2016 survey conducted by the UK National Trust found that today’s kids spend half the time their parents did playing outside.
Louv and others argue that nature-deficit disorder has a relatively straightforward cure: Let young children learn by playing outside, untethered by tests, rote memorization—or even desks. The basic tenet of the outdoor education movement is that children thrive when adults give them the time and space to explore the world around them, make mistakes, learn from them, and have agency over their own lives. Lots of unstructured play time is crucial. Teachers give children the chance to take risks, and use the elements of nature to learn valuable lessons about science, math, or even literature. After all, it was the Romantics who first theorized that nature is the remedy for the ills of modern society—or, as the English poet William Wordsworth wrote, “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”
There is only limited assessment of the impact of outdoor education on very young children, but studies of older kids suggest that forest schools help children forge relationships with their peers and their teachers. Not only do their socio-emotional skills (pdf) improve, learning directly in and from nature also seems to have a positive effect on cognitive and fine motor skills. And unstructured play has been shown as crucial to develop children’s imagination, creativity, attention, and independence.
Outdoor learning leads to more exercise, which is good for children’s mental and physical health, and it also leads to better mental health in adulthood. There is evidence that early childhood, the time between birth and age five, is a crucial window. In this period, parents and teachers can help children develop healthy eating and exercise habits, which prevent them from becoming obese or overweight later in life. Amber Fyfe-Johnson, a health researcher at Washington State University, conducted a pilot study last year in which she compared a group of 30 toddlers at Tiny Trees, a licensed outdoor preschool in Seattle, with 20 kids in an indoor preschool. She found that, after a year, the proportion of kids who were overweight or obese dropped by 14% among the outdoor preschool kids. There was no change in the children at indoor preschools. (Parents measured and self-reported their children’s height and weight, which means there could have been inaccuracies in the data.) These preliminary results were encouraging to Fyfe-Johnson, who is now doing a larger study to assess the impact of outdoor preschools on kids in Washington state.
Proponents of outdoor education sometimes talk about it as if it were the answer to almost any child-rearing challenge, from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and anxiety to behavioral and developmental problems. Oh, and overprotected and coddled kids, too. But it’s not clear to what extent that is actually the case. While we know that spending time outdoors is generally good for kids, the devil is in the detail: How much time? What sort of natural setting? What should they learn there, and how? Mark Leather, associate professor of adventure education and outdoor learning at Plymouth Marjon University, says he often hears well-meaning advocates of forest schools in the UK make all sorts of claims about their benefits, to which he usually responds: “Don’t make claims that we don’t have the evidence for.”
One unanswered question revolves around the structuring of outdoor activity. How much do the positive effects of outdoor education depend on what the children and the teacher do there? There are no real guidelines for how teachers should structure outdoor activities to make sure kids benefit. If all that kids do is aimlessly traipse around in the woods for six hours a day, they’re not likely to benefit very much, and parents might worry that it will be difficult for them to adjust to indoor schooling in first grade. Fyfe-Johnson argues that “if it’s a hard transition and we have information that being outside is healthy for kids, then we should focus on making that transition easier and smoother, versus just taking outdoor time away.”
This begs the question: Why is there so little outdoor time scheduled in the normal primary school day?
Leather, who has written a critique of British forest schools, says outdoor education in the UK has become commodified. Teachers care about learning outcomes and ploughing through the curriculum, he says, and many nurseries and kindergartens that call themselves forest schools teach outdoors only partially, perhaps at regular intervals during the week, as opposed to full-time. Some of these forest schools even contract the time out to private companies. That is “a great shame as far as I’m concerned,” says Leather, “because if you do learning outdoors in a curriculum-connected way, you have a range and depth of aesthetic experiences that provide authentic learning opportunities.”
There is a deep inequality of access to the outdoors in rich countries. In most large cities in the US, well-educated, white people are more likely to have access to green spaces. A study conducted in Brisbane, Australia showed that richer neighborhoods have more tree cover than poorer neighborhoods. And a 2016 study conducted by Nature England found that 74% of white children under 16 visited a natural spot, such as a park or a beach, at least once a week, compared to 56% in low-income black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) families. Almost all outdoor preschools are private, so experts worry that they simply exacerbate the social divides of race and class with respect to access to nature. “Outdoor time is a right, not a privilege,” says Fyfe-Johnson. Some schools have adapted by providing more spots for low-income families. Tiny Trees, which partnered with Fyfe-Johnson on her pilot study, says half of its families receive financial assistance.
In the UK, forest schools are not licensed by the state. That’s why “the fact that Washington state are licensing outdoor kindergartens is showing foresight,” says Leather. But as the model scales, there are things to watch out for, including making sure these programs actually work by establishing a metric of success. Over the next four years, Fyfe-Johnson will measure physical activity, body mass index, sleep, gut microbiome, and academic and behavioral outcomes in 100 children who attend Tiny Trees, and compare the results to those of 100 children who are on the school’s waitlist and meanwhile, enrolled in a traditional preschool.
Licensing outdoor education models means thinking critically about how indoor education is structured. “We have an education system really that is Victorian in design…where we do put children in cages and suppress them and contain them for five or six hours a day,” Leather says. “Why do we spend so much time in a box?”