Nature-based preschools encourage kids to connect with the world around them

Lucy, accompanied by her butterfly staffy
Lucy, accompanied by her butterfly staffy, leads Oak class students and teacher Joey Schoen as they run towards the nearby farm at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

A group of preschoolers hike down a dirt path in sunhats and rain boots at Dodge Nature Preschool in West St. Paul. Here the small children spend almost 80 percent of their time outside. 

“I've seen sheep, seen chickens,” said 5-year-old Margaret “Maggie” Gale. Maggie has been at the preschool for a year and a half where she and her peers explore the ponds, gardens, prairies and farm at Dodge Nature Center year round. Maggie’s favorite season is winter, but in the summer she likes seeing the animals.

Students feed the chickens
Oak class students from Dodge Nature Preschool feed the chickens at the farm next to the school on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“My favorite’s the chickens because that's my favorite farm animal,” she said. So it’s her lucky day when her teacher Joey Schoen says they’re going on a hike to see the chickens.

Schoen has been a teacher at Dodge Nature Preschool for 20 years and over that time she’s seen how nature helps young kids come into their own.

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Solvi explores through a Viewfinder Toy camera
Solvi explores through a Viewfinder Toy camera at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“It's just a very authentic way — as you're a young person, figuring out the whole world.  You have a much bigger array of experiences to figure out who you are in this world,” Schoen said. 

Nature-based learning curriculums in early childhood follow the children’s interests and use nature as a catalyst for learning. When Dodge Nature Preschool began in 2000, there were only a handful of nature-based preschools in the country. But over the last two decades the number of these kinds of schools has quadrupled according to the Natural Start Alliance.

Learning from nature

Even though they aren’t following a traditional preschool curriculum, the teachers at Dodge Nature Preschool, like EJ Coolidge, know the kids are learning a lot.

“They’re still just like taking it all in and learning so much about how the world works,” Coolidge said. “So to have this, like a rich environment to explore, is really powerful. And it really builds a deep connection with nature.”

On the way to the chicken coop, the teachers stop and let kids taste wild grapevines and pick mulberries off a tree for them to try. Some of the students hum in appreciation of the flavor while others screw up their faces because it’s sour. 

A teacher offers berries to a student
Joey Schoen, Assistant Director, and Oak Room Teacher, offers berries to a student at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“How can you tell when they will taste sweet?,” Schoen asks. “They’re black!” The kids answer. 

The red ones are sour. The teachers say this is a lesson itself, where the children are learning how to use their senses and wonder about plants.

On the hike, they also pick up plants to feed to chickens, who pick voraciously at the leaves held in the kids' tiny hands. 

“These chickens are mighty hungry,” notices preschooler Finn Donoghue. 

A changing curriculum

When they spend most of their time outside, young kids can run and shout when they want. Amy Warzybok, director of Dodge Nature Preschool, said this freedom to climb and feel different textures with their hands and feet is important. She’s been the director at Dodge for four years but has spent even longer as an early childhood educator.

Amy Warzybok, delights students with a swing
Preschool Director, Amy Warzybok, delights students with a swing at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“What I noticed is that the outdoor and the nature spaces allow children to see their big ideas through. It's a yes space,” Warzybok said. “And that's helping form a lot of brain connections for them. To get to be in such a sensory world.”

At Dodge Nature Preschool, staff use an emergent curriculum which means lessons change from day to day based on the children’s individual needs and the environment. 

“Whether it's on our playground space, sometimes we see different birds and critters like insects and things like that and we wonder about them, or we watch things grow and change throughout the seasons,” Warzybok said.

Maggie holds the gate
Aurora holds the gate for Maggie upon their return from a farm trip to Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Their lessons change with the weather, but some seasonal teaching opportunities are constant. For example, in summer they can learn about the lifecycle with bugs; in autumn teaches harvesting; in winter they look at animal tracks and the water cycle; in the spring it's gardening and mud. 

Melissa Murray has put three of her kids through the summer program at Dodge Nature Preschool. As a high school teacher, she said she sees her kids learning all the skills they’d need to be successful.

“Fearlessness to try new things, learning by exploration and problem solving are all those same skills that they will use in later school, and as they are successful humans, hopefully, later in life,” Murray said.

A ‘growing’ trend

A big tenant that can separate nature-based learning from other methods is the encouragement of kids to take safe risks. Sheila Williams Ridge was the first business manager for Dodge Nature Preschool when it first started and she helped develop the manual the teachers still use. 

“Sometimes at other schools they say, ‘We're not going to let children play with sticks, because sometimes they hit each other.’ Well, yes, but also, if every time they are not good at something, you say, you don't get to do this anymore, you're never gonna get better at it,” Williams Ridge said. “So you have to add some structure and say, ‘Okay, you're practicing this, sometimes when you're playing with sticks, you might hit someone's hand, what can we do to be really careful about that?”

Williams Ridge doesn’t work at Dodge anymore, but she still works as a nature-based educator who wants more kids to have access to this kind of education. Nature-based preschools were growing before COVID-19, but became even more popular during the pandemic because it gave parents a safer option for childcare that was outside. Still, nature-based schools can be expensive and generally have been inaccessible to families in metropolitan areas, children of color and low-income families.

Teachers collect fruit from a tree
EJ Coolidge (left) and Joey Schoen (right) collect fruit from a tree for Oak Room students at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Williams Ridge said in Minnesota there’s been a push to address the achievement gap between children of color and their white counterparts by stressing rote learning.

“That is exactly the opposite of what they need for real success. What they need are opportunities for creativity, for exploration, for hands-on experiences,” she said.

Dodge Nature Preschool tries to address these issues through recruitment and scholarship opportunities. The school is accredited by NAEYC and is 4-star Parent Aware which makes it eligible for early learning scholarships through the state.

But with the rise of interest in nature-based learning, Williams Ridge said she’s seen even traditional preschools bring more nature into the lives of children. Even just an intentional walk in the park is a good way to expose children to nature because the benefits are undeniable.

A reporter poses a question
MPR News reporter Kyra Miles poses a question to Oak class student Maggie at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Even if the kids at Dodge Nature Preschool aren’t running after chickens or picking flowers, sometimes it’s beneficial to just take it easy, like 5-year-old Maggie. 

“I like just kind of feeling the breeze. That’s what I like,” Maggie said.

That personal connection to nature is what Eva Mastbaum said was really important to her family when choosing to enroll her kids at Dodge Nature Preschool.

Maggie interacts with a toy doll
Maggie interacts with a toy doll at Dodge Nature Preschool on July 7 in West St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“I think that with the way things are and how the planet is and looking at our future, I think it's the greatest gift you can give to your kids to connect to nature so that they know what they need to cherish and protect later on in life,” Mastbaum said.

So when her kids come home with mud on their clothes and bugs in their hair, she knows they’ve been learning valuable lessons.