Outdoor Preschool Shows Wild Side of Learning

PHOTO Children attend a class at the Cedarsong Nature Forest Kindergarten on Vashon Island, Wash.
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Deep inside a forest on Washington's Vashon Island, children roam the woods freely.

Snacking on leaves and berries, which they call "forest candy," the youngsters sometimes make believe they are "arctic polar bear tigers;" their growls are heard loud and clear.

This is truly where the wild things are. And it's their classroom.

These children are students at the Cedarsong Nature Forest Kindergarten. After teaching pre-school for years, Erin Kenny, who is also a former lawyer, co-founded the school in on a private five-acre trek of forest on Vashon Island in 2007. Classes are always held outside, no matter the weather.

"I strongly believe that children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls," she said.

It rains nine months out of the year there, so the children are told to wear full rain gear from October through April, even on sunny days.

"During those months we have what I call 'perma-damp' here in the Northwest," Kenny said. "The ground never actually dries out."

There is almost always a puddle to splash in or a mud pie to make for the kids at a school where getting dirty is celebrated.

"Gooey, gooey mud!" one child said, happily. "I like to stomp in the mud!"

In fact, the kids are taught 21 different words for "mud." They can recognize hundreds of varieties of leaves and berries and dozens of bird calls, and also are well-versed in decomposition, metamorphosis and insects.

Kenny limits admission to seven kids per class, all age 3 to 5, and charges per day. Tuition is $120 a month for one class a week; $240 a month for two classes a week; $360 a month for three classes a week; and $480 a month for four classes a week.

Although an outdoor kindergarten may seem unorthodox, Kenny said that, in her opinion, children are naturally attracted to being outside. She added that children at that age learn best through direct experience.

Can Children Learn Without Books?

"Once we get them outdoors and they're engaging in nature they're never once are asking to go indoors," she said. "They're not asking for their parents. They're focused on being in nature."

Kenny was inspired to start the outdoor kindergarten after reading Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods." In the book, Louv coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" to explain the lack of connection between children and nature, arguing that the "deficit" is responsible for the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.

"It's been shown that recess actually helps kids perform better academically," Kenny said.

"If you look at Finland that is number one globally," she continued. "They always outperform all other schools in all other nations as far as education. After every 45-minute class, they have a 15-minute recess. They understand the value of outdoor play and getting that kinesthetic energy out after directed focus time."

Kenny believes she may be at the front of an "outdoor movement" in the United States. Other countries seem to be already way ahead. Germany has more than 500 year-round outdoor schools called Waldkindergartens or "forest kindergartens."

Walls aren't the only things missing; books are also left out of the outdoor classroom setting.

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