Ohen Kayden Perri hears a wolf howl at the South Shore Nature Center, he knows it’s time to clean up.
The 5-year-old stops to play with a pile of cut wood near the forest as his classmates rush to put away their blocks. The wolf’s howl signals it’s time “to go do some cool stuff,” he said.
Kayden’s not at summer camp. He and his peers attend a kindergarten, where Mother Nature is the primary educator. Nature preschools have more than doubled in the past five years in the United States, boosted by the pandemic, said Christy Merrick of the Natural Start Alliance, a group that promotes environmental education. In 2017, the organization estimated there were 275 nature preschools, which have grown to 680 this year. New York saw a 20% increase in programs to 36 from 2019 to 2021, Merrick said.
Outdoor classes, mainly
Little Peepers Forest Preschool in East Islip is one of three nature-based preschools on Long Island where classes are held almost entirely outdoors, rain or shine, and even during snowfall. Here they play and learn what is traditionally taught in early childhood education, exploring science, art, music, math and language in the outdoors. They only come indoors in dangerous weather, such as when winds exceed 20 mph or thunderstorms are coming.
Little Peepers, named after the small but loud frog, was the first of its kind in Suffolk County, said Peter Walsh, director of education for the Seatuck Environmental Association, a nonprofit conservation organization. conservation that runs the school.
The nursery school has slowly grown since it opened eight years ago and now has 25 pupils – its largest year to date. A new class has been added during the pandemic to accommodate student growth, says Walsh.
“We’ve seen more families join our program,” he told Newsday. “The COVID pandemic has definitely introduced us to families who otherwise wouldn’t have considered a program like ours.”
Bayport’s Kristen Perri said she enrolled her son Kayden in Little Peepers in 2021. Kayden’s heart problems barred him from joining a traditional indoor kindergarten, and she wanted to protect him from exposure to the coronavirus. Although Kayden joined kindergarten a year later than expected, Perri said “he learned faster than I imagined” and had no trouble catching up.
Not limited by walls
One benefit of having a spacious outdoor “classroom” is that children’s play won’t be limited by walls, Walsh said. Their imagination has no limits.
“What we find is that their language is richer because their visual cues are richer,” Walsh said. “Their pattern recognition is deeper.”
The students of Kimberly Uresk, a teacher from Little Peepers, play, discuss the weather, take attendance and tackle their daily lesson. On a recent winter day, 3-year-old Ivy Lanza mastered a balance beam made from a fallen tree and jumped over some holes. Kayden and his classmate Miles Lewandowski, 5, dragged a cart of lumber which they cut. Discussing the day’s weather, instead of glancing out the window, they experienced a blustery day as the wind ripped through their learning space. As the nine students discussed the pond day’s lesson plan, they paused while the local deer family strolled. Later, the students walked to the pond where they caught sticklebacks.
According to Cassandra D’Accordo, a clinical psychologist at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, emerging research on nature-based teaching shows “that nature has a positive effect on children’s development,” including memory. and attention. be “in very rich areas where this research [is conducted] and where children have access to nature and natural play areas. “Children who have access to nature-based preschools likely have access to other resources that may be helpful to them. This can ‘bias the data,'” she added.
Hitting the “big three”
Costs for nature preschools on Long Island, which operate the traditional school year, range from $2,500 to $6,500 per year. At Little Peepers, a three-day, two-and-a-half-hour program costs $3,780 and $5,625 for five days.
Preschools that operate 3 hours or less and are not affiliated with public school districts do not need to be monitored by the state Department of Education. Spokespersons for Nature Schools said the schools independently determine education standards. At Little Peeper’s, Walsh said, the curriculum is created in-house by merging state guidelines with guidelines encouraged by nature schools.
Lisa Minicozzi, clinical associate professor at Adelphi University’s School of Education in Garden City, said outdoor preschools are hitting all the marks of what early childhood educators call the “big three.” “: physical, cognitive and socio-emotional learning domains. Learning through the prism of nature ticks all the boxes. Plus, it can be fun, she says.
“Going through a pandemic, many parents really wonder where the joy of learning is,” she said. “We think it should be a joyful experience.”
Minicozzi said Long Island’s preschools, indoor and outdoor, are heavily privatized. She encouraged parents to ask specific questions about teachers’ education and qualifications and whether the program is right for their children. She encouraged early childhood educators to create professional guidelines to help Long Island programs grow.
“Wanting to do things outside”
At the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Rockville Center, which sits on an 11-acre campus and has 15 students, principal Ray Ann Havasy said they teach 3- and 4-year-olds to be naturally curious.
“The more curious a child is, the more learning is intrinsic to them,” Havasy said. “The outdoors opens them up to soaking up learning so much as sitting in a room.”
Nesting bald eagles live on the property, driving kids crazy as they soar overhead. Last year, an eagle flew over the classroom with a freshly caught eel, inspiring conversations about nature, Havasy said.
While Erica Corlito of Malverne and his family are understandably outdoors, the pandemic was an impetus to enroll their 4-year-old son Westcott in the science center’s preschool.
“With the pandemic and everything, at that time, an outdoor school or a school that was mostly outdoors was really one of the only things we were considering,” she said. “It really helped us make the decision.”
Running a nature preschool has long been a dream of teacher Allison Grief, who is the children’s program manager for the Suffolk County Farm & Education Center through Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Inspired by Little Peepers, she opened Little Farmer’s Preschool in Yaphank four years ago, which has grown to 50 students. She attributes the growth to the pandemic. The kindergarten has a waiting list of 10 students, said grief.
“I think people started wanting to do things outside as well,” she said. “A lot of parents didn’t want to send their kids to a classroom.”
Other Long Island programs offer nature-based programs for children, but no curriculum. Aishling Forest School in Brookhaven supplements traditional education and offers enrichment programs targeting home-schooled students, said founder Jordan Manfredi. The program runs on a seasonal basis and can accommodate up to 50 children aged 3-9.
“Our mission at Forest School is to preserve the magic of childhood,” she said. “Nature is the master.”