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Is nature preschool right for your family? Learn the ins and out and why you might want to consider it!

A movement is sweeping over the US and other parts of the world. People are awakening to the fact that cooping up very young children in preschools for several hours a day hinders the natural desire to be outside, and possibly even stifles their development. A new breed of “preschools,” often referred to as “nature preschool” or “forest schools” meet the nature-needs of children and the academic pressures of society. As a homeschooler, you might consider programs like these, or you may want to head-up your own “forest school” of sorts for your young child.  Your child won’t be the only one to benefit from nature preschool. 

Nature is the New Preschool

Nature Preschool- Less Stress for All

I was the mom trying to forge preschool learning for my young daughter, with an infant in tow. It was fun at first, but soon it became exhausting. A new week would roll around, and I realized that I had forgotten to create wonder for my child. I tried to throw together some supplies and activities, but my guilt overwhelmed me. Maybe she’d be better off at a real preschool. 

About this same time, I dedicated myself to learning about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy in the early years. I had used it with older children as a teacher, but I didn’t realize how different, how freeing it was in the early years. 

Charlotte Mason suggested that young children should be outside most of the day. According to her philosophy, this time outside should take the place of ABC’s and worksheets, paper crafts and glue sticks. By skipping these time-consuming activities and spending time outside with my children, my stress levels dropped tremendously. Research shows that just looking at a picture of nature can reduce stress levels, so imagine the decline in stress levels when we spend hours outside each day! 

At first, I worried that my child would be behind her peers academically. However, the lessons she learned during this outdoor time transcended anything she’d learn with a pencil in her hand. 

Nature Play IS Learning

My child did not fall behind because of one of the fundamental truths about childhood, often manipulated and distorted: children learn through play. This does not mean that we have to create opportunities for them to play in pre-determined situations. The best, most brain-building type of play is child-led, not adult-led. 

And while any type of child-led play benefits the brain, moving it outside is even better. When a child plays outside, he or she automatically receives sensory input that is absent indoors. As I write this, I am sitting outside under a night sky, waiting for a meteor shower to start. I’m listening to the crickets chirp, feeling the wind on my skin, getting the occasional scent of neighboring flowers as it is carried to me on the breeze, and peeking up at the sky every so often to look for meteors. Four out of five of my senses are engaged. In a time where sensory processing issues are running rampant, this increased sensory input is beyond helpful to a child’s development. 

A child who plays outside often develops better motor skills, both fine and gross. My children find endless opportunities to practice using these skills, from jumping from stone to stone (gross motor), to threading leaves on sticks (fine motor).

Playing outside with others is one of the best ways for a child to develop social and emotional skills. Children who play outside with others tend to have less conflict with others, greater problem-solving skills, and collaborative outdoor time offers the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. 

But, What About Academics? 

The skills I mentioned above lay a firm foundation for learning in later years, but academics are a concern to many. You can still follow your child’s lead if you decide to let nature be your child’s main teacher. If your child is curious about letters, go on an outdoor scavenger hunt for things that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet. A child curious about math will love using rocks as math manipulatives to aid in counting and adding. 

Time outside naturally teaches your child about science. Observation is always an important part of science, and being put in the way of interesting things will give your child many opportunities to learn. Recently, a trip to a creek taught my little ones about the life cycle of a frog, as they discovered tadpoles, “adolescents” with legs and a tail, and fully developed frogs. 

STEM, an educational buzzword, is adequately experienced outdoors. Young children can balance logs, build dams, and our favorite, experiment with pulleys outside. 

Nature Preschool “At Home” 

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If you want to offer your child a nature preschool experience but also wish to homeschool them, it’s entirely possible by simply planning excursions to local outdoor spaces. I recommend scheduling regular outdoor play dates with a group of like-minded friends. This establishes accountability for you, so you aren’t as tempted to forgo the outdoor time on less-than-perfect days. It also gives your child playmates so they can develop those ever-important social skills that are so happily acquired outside. 

If going somewhere sounds overwhelming, think smaller. Stick to your own backyard or a nearby park. One of our favorite nature spots is a small library garden that is close to our home. It’s a surprising, nature-filled spot in the midst of suburbia. 

If you want to plan some low-key activities, go ahead! You can find them online very easily, and I’ve included links to my favorite sites for nature-based activities below. One of the best parts of nature preschool is that it comes with many free materials. Find ways to incorporate sticks, rocks, mud, water, and tress into your daily “lessons.” 

Nature-based “preschool” at home could have a very positive influence on your family. Here are some resources to help you get started. 

  1. Tinkergarten- This educational company offers free nature-play ideas on their website. Gather up some materials, or pick activities with only nature finds, and head outside. If you’d like a little more guidance, you can sign up for Tinkergarten classes. Parents and children attend these classes together and can learn and play together. I’ve been a Tinkergarten leader for five seasons, and my children and I love the nature-play inspiration that it has given us! 
  2. Exploring Nature With Children- If you think you and your child could benefit from more formal nature study, look into this year-long curriculum. We used it for my daughter’s kindergarten year, and it was nice to have a little more structure to our outdoor time. 
  3. Blossom and Root Early Years Curriculum- Another nature-based curriculum geared towards preschool-aged children is from Blossom and Root. Incorporate nature play as well as literature and the arts.  
  4. Balanced and Barefoot-– If you need more convincing that nature play is the new preschool, you definitely need to read this book! It was written by an OT who connects sensory problems with the lack of outdoor play. You can find this and other nature-oriented resources in my Amazon store. 
  5. Wash-up Station– If you’re worried about the mess that outdoor play brings, set up your own washing station, to wash off the dirt after your adventures. 

About Leah Martin

Leah Martin is a Christian wife and mom who lives in Colorado. Her former career as a Charlotte Mason-trained teacher has prepared her for homeschooling her three children, ages 6, 3, and 1. Since beginning her homeschooling journey, she's picked up many interests that fit the bill: hiking, reading, and creating are just a few of them. You can find Leah over at Mylittlerobins.com, and on the Thinking Love podcast.

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