On a recent cold, damp spring day, in a patch of forest behind a Duluth church, six preschoolers dressed in matching red raincoats ran from tree to tree, telling their teacher what they observed.
“I saw a bunny!” exclaimed one little boy. “What does that mean?” his teacher, Meghan Morrow, asked.
“It’s spring!” he yelled, triumphantly. “It’s finally spring, we’ve waited and waited and waited,” Morrow agreed. “Those snowshoe hares have been white for a long time this year.”
Morrow runs the Secret Forest Play School in Duluth, and every twist of this quarter-mile long trail presents a new learning opportunity for these eager children: a snowshoe hare that finally took off its winter coat; a small pond where the ice has melted; a creek swelled with rainwater.
When a student slips and falls and begins to cry, Morrow doesn’t rush to console her. Instead she asks her classmates to think about what they can do to help. “Are you okay?” a boy quietly asks. “What can you do to offer her some comfort?” Morrow asks, which prompts a gentle hug.
“Children often watch us be the person that solves the problem as an adult,” Morrow explains. “And my role here is to step back and to empower them to know that they can fill that role too.”
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This impromptu lesson in empathy is typical of the kind of learning that takes place at Secret Forest every day, and at similar nature-based preschools that have flourished in Duluth, and across the country, in recent years.
The focus is less on academics, and more on the social and emotional growth that’s appropriate for three to five-year-olds, Morrow explained.
“And so by letting them be in community and be with their peers, there's a lot of learning that happens on its own.”
Morrow started Secret Forest ten years ago when she couldn't find the kind of preschool she wanted for her son, one that emphasized outdoor play. So, she quit her job as a sign language interpreter and started her own.
Three months later, the school was full. She’s had a long waiting list ever since. And in the decade that followed, another ten or so nature-based preschools have opened in the Duluth area, with more planned. They all have waiting lists too.
Duluth, despite its sometimes unforgiving trend, is a hotbed of a growing national trend focused on moving preschool classrooms outdoors, said David Sobel, a leading scholar on nature education.
Nationwide, there are now more than 600 nature-based preschools around the country; more than double the number of five years ago, according to the Natural Start Alliance, a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education.
“I think parents are scared of seeing what's happening with their kids in terms of becoming couch potatoes and always connected to screens,” Sobel said.
Curiosity, creativity, resilience
Despite the rapid growth of these outdoors-centric schools, Sobel said they remain controversial in some circles. He said many parents worry their kids might get hurt outside – they could fall out of a tree, or get bitten by a tick.
There’s also a stigma that kids who attend these schools won’t be prepared for kindergarten– that they, as Sobel said, “compromise academic growth as a function of, you know, being groovy and stomping in the mud.”
Research has found essentially no difference in academic achievement between kids who go through nature preschools, and kids who attend traditional early childhood programs, Sobel said.
And anyway, the real benefits aren't measured by test scores, argues Julie Ernst, a professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She’s led research over the past several years showing that preschoolers who learn outdoors demonstrate increased curiosity, creativity, resilience, and physical skills like balance and coordination.
“We have this sense that fresh air and playing outside is good for kids, but then to have that backed by some of the research evidence” is important, Ernst said.
She points to the research she conducted analyzing kids’ curiosity, which used an instrument called a “curiosity drawer box,” in which children pulled toys out of the various drawers to play with them.
In our rapid-fire world of scrolling through screens, Ernst said the findings were particularly telling.
“We found that the children in nature preschools had a kind of curiosity that provoked them to engage more deeply, and try and make sense of things and really tune in, as opposed to just kind of looking at something and moving on.”
There’s also anecdotal evidence of social and emotional growth from kids who spend more time outdoors, particularly from teacher testimonials.
“You know, when this kid’s inside, he’s a terror,” said Sobel. “But when he’s outside, he’s one of the leaders. He’s more focused, much more able to engage.”
He said studies have found that going outside reduces cortisol levels, which lowers stress and anxiety, so students can better focus on academic activity when they come back inside.
Ernst is pursuing more research into the benefits of outdoor preschools, including a current focus on empathy. She also launched a first-of-its kind, multi-disciplinary Childhood Nature Studies major at UMD that builds off her research and the growth of schools in the region.
But Ernst said the best selling point of this educational approach is simply to observe nature preschools in action, and watch what unfolds.
“What you see and hear is joy. You hear joyful sounds, you see joy in their faces. And you see kids who are interacting well with their peers, and who are caring for each other. You feel an aliveness that is unmistakable.”
You wish that would be the experience of children everywhere,” Ernst added. “And it's not.”
Good for everybody
One big challenge advocates face is how to make outdoor schools more accessible to all children. The schools are largely private. Tuition often costs more than $300 a month for two days a week of school. Good outdoor gear — a necessity in communities such as Duluth — can be prohibitively expensive.
But in Duluth, public preschools are also embracing the get outside ethos. Several Duluth public preschools have access to school forests. Recent grants paid for new natural playscapes at three more urban schools that don’t have nearby forests, and for rain suits for students.
The program recently established a policy that kids need to be outside between one and two hours a day, depending on the length of the school day.
Duluth Public Schools preschool coordinator Sherry Williams said both academic research and their own experience back the new approach.
“When kids are outside, they're more engaged. There are many, many fewer behavior problems outside than there are inside. It’s also good for our teachers to get outside. I mean, it's good for everybody to get outside when things are tough.”