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.

"I have a very different philosophy about what preschoolers need," Kenny said. "I think in America we believe preschools need to learn letters and numbers to get a jump-start on their education when they enter public school. However the studies in Germany show just the opposite that the children perform better on standardized tests when they enter the public school system."

Kenny has never prepared a lesson plan and said her school's philosophy is "interest-led."

"If children are allowed to sort of move at their own pace and they are the ones that are spotting things that peak their curiosity and allowed to explore them in a hands-on way, they can become very focused," she said.

'Kids Are Going to Get Dirty No Matter What'

While at Cedarsong, the children do not go inside for anything, not even to eat lunch or use the bathroom.

"A lot of the kids actually choose to go to the bathroom outdoors," she said. "We do also have a composting toilet that the kids can use if they want to."

Despite their chilly damp surroundings, Kenny boasted that children at an outdoor preschool were actually healthier than those at an indoor one, where kids share toys in the same small room.

"When you're outdoors, first of all, there's more room and space for the kids when they're coughing and sneezing," she said. "Second of all, they're grabbing and holding different things because we have five acres and they can climb on all kinds of different branches and that kind of thing."

To those critics who may think this all sounds a little too alternative, Kenny responded by simply saying it's just a very "indoor culture here in America."

"If the kids are dry and warm, they will stay immersed in nature for many, many hours," she said.

Every student enrolled in the school gets free outdoor gear. Bogs Footwear provides their boots, and Columbia Sportswear supplies everything else, such as hats and coats.

Even the parents get into the great outdoors excitement, as one mother made a loud "ka kaw ka kaw" from the forest edge when she came to pick up her child.

"If there's a giant mud puddle, she's covered in mud," said Alison Kennedy Taylor, the mother of one of the students, Beulah Ellison-Taylor, 3. "Yesterday, she got a mud shampoo from another kid…with her permission."

Taylor said she expects her daughter to come home filthy from being outdoors.

"Beulah's gone to other preschools where she's come back with paint halfway up her arm or chalk all over her shoes," she said. "It's really no different than going to any other preschool. Kids are going to get dirty no matter what."

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