Nature-based education programs gaining popularity in area

By KAITLIN MULHERE Keene Sentinel Staff
Posted by Keene Sentinel: Sunday, November 17, 2013

Four-year-old Myles Alderfer waddles in his snow pants from the goats’ pen toward the trickling creek. In his small hands he holds a yellow bucket, as tall as his knees and half-filled with water. A little bit sloshes out of the bucket with each step he takes.

I’m strong, he says to no one in particular.

His teacher is waiting for him at the creek, where one of his classmates is wading in her rubber boots. They’ll scrub the bucket and scoop up some fresh water for the goats.

Next, the class will make the short march over to the pond to feed the Khaki Campbell Ducks, also known as quacky campbell ducks, if you’re a preschooler.

Farm chores make up an average mid-week morning at preschool for this lot, students at Wild Roots Nature School at Stonewall Farm in Keene.

Nature-based early childhood education isn’t a new philosophy, having been popular in Europe for decades. But in the past five years or so, the movement has started to crop up in the United States.

And in the past year, nature-based education has become more visible in the Monadnock Region. Antioch University New England in Keene has held two conferences on the topic and plans to start offering a certificate program in the field next year. Two nature-based preschools opened in the region this year, adding to ones already thriving across New England.

Advocates say fresh air and time spent outdoors is vital to young children’s development. Programs that are largely based outside where students are free to roam can instill a love for nature, an ability to work through problems on their own and the skills to be aware of their surroundings.

Wild Roots director and lead teacher Liza Lowe laughs when she explains that the farm staff who trained her said it should take about 30 minutes to care for the goats, ducks, chickens, sheep, alpacas and rabbits.

The preschool version clocks in at about an hour and half. There are breaks to pet the animals, debate whether a white, spiked caterpillar is poisonous and climb on rocks that are imaginary horses.

Part of my job is just giving them lots of space and time to explore, Lowe said.

The beauty of the nature-based model, she said, is that there’s no strict schedule she has to stick to. She does make plans for what they’ll do and talk about each day.

But really, it’s just whatever they’re interested in, she said with a shrug. For this age, I feel like the free play outside is more important anyways.

That explains much of the philosophy behind nature-based early childhood education: the natural world is the classroom, and the students drive the curriculum through their explorations, questions and discoveries.

The three-day-a-week Wild Roots is a small program, with no more than five students on any given day. It costs $320 each month.

Lowe didn’t get a license from the state until August, so she had little time to advertise for this year. Two or three new families plan to enroll in January and she hopes to see the school grow and possibly expand as the students get older and more people discover nature-based education.

David Sobel, a faculty member in Antioch’s department of education who helped design the school’s new nature education certificate program, said there are a few components that create a nature-based program.

For one, students are outside far more than in a traditional child care setting. The length varies by the program, but at least one-third or one-half of the day is spent outdoors.

The curriculum is driven by learning about the rhythm of the seasons, Sobel said.

At Wild Roots, Lowe and her students spent the fall harvesting beans and collecting milkweed pods. They talked about why leaves fall off trees and jumped into a lot of leaf piles. They learned about the life cycle of apples and used an apple cider press.

Nature-based programs also bring more of the outdoors inside, through lesson topics and projects on trees, leaves or bugs.

And finally, there’s more self-initiated activity than in a conventional classroom, Sobel said. Teachers are trained to step back and let students lead the way.

Antioch found that many of its graduates were either running nature-themed child care programs or wanted to move in that direction. But there was no organized higher education program for the topic, Sobel said.

So the university started by planning a workshop in spring 2012 called In Bloom: Promising Practices in Nature-based Early Childhood with help from Sophia’s Hearth Family Center in Keene and the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock. The university held another in May. Each time, at least 100 people came, Sobel said.

Antioch also designed a 12- to 15-credit certificate program in the field with courses such as business planning, childhood and nature, and risk management for nature-based early childhood programs.

Risk management includes topics such as handling minor injuries, ticks or bee stings, Sobel said.

But, in general, nature-based programs are more supportive of so-called safe danger, where kids are free to try to walk across rocks in a stream on their own or trip while running in the woods.

If we can allow kids to take some safe risks, it’s only going to prepare them to take other risks in the future and think about them in a logical way, said Rosalind Hanchett, who attended a course at Antioch before starting Robin’s Nest Nature School out of her Peterborough home this year.

She said she grew up playing outside, and sometimes she feels like she’s one of the last generations of kids to do so. But nature-based programs give children the opportunity to grow curious about the natural world, she said.

We like to call ourselves child-led, play-based and nature-based, she said. If a child wants to sit down and learn their letters one day, we’ll do that. But if not, that’s fine, too.

Students at Robin’s Nest spend up to three-quarters of the day outside, and they’ve been lucky with good weather so far this fall, she said.

As temperatures drop, though, nature-based program advocates will say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor preparation.

Wild Roots and Robin’s Nest both rely on parents to equip students with raincoats and rubber boots, long underwear, snow pants and mittens, or sunscreen and bug spray, depending on the season.

There’s no hard and fast formula for when it’s too cold to go outside, Lowe said. It just depends on how the kids are feeling, and so far, they’ve handled the brisk November days just fine.

Lowe and Hanchett both said the Monadnock Region is teeming with resources such as hiking trails, woods and state parks that make it a natural fit for nature-based programs.

But nature-based programs aren’t only for rural students, and part of Antioch’s goal is to bring the model to more urban settings, including New Haven, Conn., Providence, R.I., and Boston, Sobel said.

Most city child care programs have access to urban green space within a 5-minute walk, Sobel said. They can also change their playgrounds, replacing plastic slides and ladders with rocks, trees and shrubs. And part of the philosophy is grounded in the simple benefit of fresh air, even if that means walking down a city street.

Studies on similar nature-based programs in Scandinavian countries show students who attend those programs are more likely to have better motor development, can solve problems on their own more successfully and have a more comprehensive vocabulary than their peers in more conventional programs, Sobel said.

In nature-based programs, there’s more space given for kids to work out their own issues, Sobel said. And so research suggests kids are better served in terms of social interaction skills, too.

Those social skills and self-motivation might better prepare young students for later success than would learning numbers and letters, Sobel said.

Every realm of a child’s development is enhanced by time spent outdoors, Sophia’s Hearth Director Susan Weber said. This fall, the center started offering a parent and child class called Seasons, aimed at teaching parents how to feel comfortable spending time with young children outdoors in all kinds of weather.

The teacher, Amy Fredland, has also been a presenter at Antioch’s two workshops.

Every child is different and so nature offers places to crawl, climb and play for all different levels of development, Fredland said.

For young children, exploring nature is their first opportunity to test their own limits. That’s the foundation for their whole lives learning their boundaries, strengths and weaknesses, she said.

And all you have to do is go outdoors.