HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: A movement to get kids out of classrooms with walls and into the great outdoors is picking up steam. Across the U.S., nature preschools are seeing a surge.
Jeffrey Brown traveled to Midland, Michigan, to find out why for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.
STUDENT: There’s a spider in my net.
JEFFREY BROWN: Hunting for bugs, jumping off logs, dipping for frogs, it’s what kids do, right? In fact, no, many don’t, certainly not as part of their education.
But in the age of testing, screens, and, some would say, excessively coddled children, a new movement of nature preschools is growing and pushing kids outdoors.
Jenn Kirts, a biologist by training, oversees educational programs at the nonprofit Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, 1,200 acres of woodlands, wetlands, ponds and meadows.
JENN KIRTS, Director of Programs, Chippewa Nature Center: In a classroom, a lot of the things that you have are static and were designed to be played with in one particular way. The natural environment changes every single day. The weather changes, the humidity. There’s scat left behind. There’s new footprints. There’s leaves that are chewed today that weren’t chewed yesterday.
And so there’s just a natural curiosity that happens there. And it’s something that people have spent time in for generations and generations. All of our existence, kids have grown up outdoors. That has changed in these current generations.
JEFFREY BROWN: Students here spend most of the day outdoors. Some nature preschools don’t even have indoor classrooms. The alphabet and language skills are emphasized, while the lab for other skills is all around.
JENN KIRTS: When we’re dipping at a pond and we’re discovering what’s there, that’s life science right there. And when we’re measuring trees, and kids are then going around and designing things to do those measurements and to figure that out, that is engineering and problem-solving and math.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the idea is catching on. Nature preschools are seeing a surge in the U.S. — 10 years ago, there were barely 20. Today, by one count, the number has grown to nearly 250.
STUDENT: A tadpole is swimming away.
JEFFREY BROWN: These 3- and 4-year-olds learned about the life cycle of a frog, and then went to the pond to catch some.
JESSICA DANKERT, Chippewa Nature Center: To see a child touch a frog that looks slimy and ewy and icky for them, and they’re OK and their hands and shaking, and we gently put them in there for them, and their face just glows.
WOMAN: What do we not want to touch?
STUDENTS: Poison ivy.
WOMAN: Poison ivy.
JEFFREY BROWN: During a weeklong summer camp, which closely mirrors the preschool program, teacher Kendall Cunningham led her charges to a meadow to catch insects and learn about the habitat.
KENDALL CUNNINGHAM, Teacher, Chippewa Nature Center: A lot of the times, they say they don’t like the insects, they don’t want to touch them, but they want to watch. Watching it different than handling it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Madison Powell is the director of the Chippewa Nature Preschool, with 140 students during the school year and a growing wait list.
MADISON POWELL, Nature Preschool Director, Chippewa Nature Center: Children are so very scheduled, they’re not allowed to be bored anymore, they’re not allowed to play with things that are dangerous or that are messy. We want them to have those opportunities.
We ask parents to look back at their childhood. What are some of the things you remember? Was it climbing a tree? Was it being covered in mud, stomping in puddles? And a lot of times, it is. And if it’s not their parents, it’s their grandparents, or some sort of relative who said, I grew up that way. I came home and the streetlights came on, that sort of thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
MADISON POWELL: And we’re living in a society that just doesn’t allow children to make many decisions for themselves.
JEFFREY BROWN: Here, they’re willing to push boundaries. We watched as one boy tried to tear down what he thought was a dead tree. First, he shook it, to no avail, then tied a rope around the sapling’s trunk to bring it down. Finally, he and a classmate managed to snap the tree, and now it really was a dead tree.
KENDALL CUNNINGHAM: They’re going to learn something from the whole experience. We can sacrifice a tree.
JEFFREY BROWN: Teacher Kendall Cunningham explained:
KENDALL CUNNINGHAM: If it would have gotten to a point that it didn’t look like it was going to be a safe activity anymore, then I probably would have intervened and said, OK, now it’s time to stop. We can’t do this anymore.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the lesson wasn’t over. Cunningham gave the boys some tools for learning, small saws, in fact, used under her watchful eyes.
Preschool director Madison Powell:
MADISON POWELL: We just make sure that we’re going with the comfort level of the teachers and the kids. Our teachers have maybe a higher tolerance for that, because we do see such value in risky play and what that does for their decision-making.
We make sure that they’re within reach. They’re not going to fall from great heights, according to us. Great heights for them might be the top of this bench.
JEFFREY BROWN: A certain level of risk is allowed.
MADISON POWELL: It sure is, and it’s healthy.
JEFFREY BROWN: Also considered healthy, going outside in most types of weather. We visited on a very hot day, but even on cold winter days in Michigan the kids bundle up and head out. Parents we talked with hear no complaints.
BECKY BENSALL, Parent: They would love to be outside all the time. Just maybe the snow suits that they wear are phenomenal. It keeps them so warm that they don’t even know it’s cold. Doesn’t even bother them. They love it.
WOMAN: They would live outside if I let them live outside. And they’re extremely curious. They’re always asking me questions, whether we’re playing in the backyard, we’re out here for hikes, or anywhere outside.
JEFFREY BROWN: But will these nature kids be academically prepared for kindergarten? That’s the subject of study right now by a Michigan State University research team, which followed the children around last year, rain or shine, gathering data with GoPro cameras and conducting interviews to test their skills.
Lori Skibbe, one of the lead investigators, told us the early results.
LORI SKIBBE, Michigan State University: What we found is that children at the, here at the nature-based center did just as well on our literacy measures, our language measures, our science measures and some of our executive function measures as children in the more traditional setting. So, they learned just as much.
JEFFREY BROWN: Does that surprise you so far?
LORI SKIBBE: At how similar they are, yes, that surprised me. The rates of learning were fairly equivalent across all of our schools, were pretty much the same.
JEFFREY BROWN: And can you draw any preliminary conclusions from that?
LORI SKIBBE: I think you can say that a nature-based setting can prepare you for kindergarten, as well as a traditional setting, if it’s done well.
JEFFREY BROWN: That study continues, for now, along with the hunt for the next insect.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan.