The Pros and Cons of Outdoor Schools
With a growing interest in alternatives to the conventional approach to early childhood education in the U.S., some parents are looking to outdoor school as an appealing option.
But how practical is it?
What's the Deal With Outdoor Schools in America?
Outdoor classrooms are not new. So-called "forest schools," or waldkitas, have been popular in Europe since the 1950s, starting in Scandinavia and later spreading to other European regions, including the U.K. The first nature-based preschool in the U.S. opened in 1967 in New Canaan, Connecticut. A century ago, open-air classrooms were created to combat disease epidemics like tuberculosis and Spanish flu. By 1920, the U.S. had dozens of "fresh air" schools in 32 states. These were closed when medical discoveries supplanted the "outdoor cure."
While the coronavirus pandemic certainly energized interest in outdoor school, the popularity of outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens was already growing, notes Christy Merrick, executive director of Natural Start Alliance, a national association of nature preschools. Nature school programs increased from a few dozen in 2013 to nearly 600 in 2020—more than doubling in the three years between 2017 and 2020. There are outdoor preschools in nearly every state and many offer full-day and half-day programs, says Merrick. Most are private and require tuition.
Much of the growth was spurred by frustration from parents that preschools and kindergartens were becoming overly academic, says Merrick. "There was a backlash against standardized testing that put too much pressure on children too early, and an awareness of research showing this kind of learning was detrimental to young children."
This increased demand mirrors the experience of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network (BOPN), a nature-based preschool that opened in fall 2019. The program, founded by early childhood teachers Sarah Besse, Shela Sinelien, and Sara Murray, expanded from 19 children in 2019 to 95 children (plus a waitlist) in 2020. What began as a single-location half-day program for ages 2.9 to 6 years, now includes both half- and full-day toddler, preschool, and kindergarten programs along with after-school and summer programs across two locations.
The Pros of Outdoor School
Aside from the public health concerns that spurred the initial rise of open-air schooling in the U.S., research shows that this type of schooling is beneficial to child development. Outdoor school is a desirable and well-studied form of education for young children, according to Rachel Larimore, Ph.D., a leader in the nature-based preschool movement and author of Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning. "In addition to the benefits of healthier air, there are all sorts of other benefits of being outside," she says.
Studies show connecting with nature helps children develop socially, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. "In terms of problem-solving with peers, building and creating something together, and connecting to something greater than ourselves, the outdoors is a rich classroom," notes Dr. Larimore.
This is something Sinelien and Besse saw firsthand. While teaching in public school, they noticed their young students seemed most engaged, alive, and simply happier when they were outdoors. They did substantial research on outdoor schools and joined forces with Murray, a Montessori teacher with 20 years of experience, who also believes outdoor learning is "the very best way to offer an education to children."
BOPN is a fully outdoor experience where the adults are still in charge and there are boundaries, but the kids have a good amount of control of their day. For example, the program includes a full hour of uninterrupted play so that children develop complex levels of imaginary play. A big part of that is taking advantage of nature, and research shows that nature-based education significantly benefits later learning.
"We're not anti-academic, we just do it differently," says Besse, also the executive director. "When we have a plant sale, for instance, the children plant the seeds, label every plant, write about it, and count up the money—the academics are the tools you need for the plant sale."
The Cons of Outdoor School
Advocates of outdoor education are enthusiastic, but the reality is that it's simply not feasible to transform the entirety of America's traditional indoor school system into outdoor school—and proponents would argue that's not the goal.
In reality, much of the basis of forest school programs is antithetical to more conventional schooling in the U.S., in which "seat work" and "direct instruction" (i.e., teacher-led instruction) are key components. Nature school is not simply a conventional early-education curriculum adapted for an outdoor classroom.
Much like parents have the option to homeschool or send their children to private or public schools, secular or religious programs, or even options like magnet and charter schools, nature school can be an option for some families—but not for others.
One of the biggest disadvantages of outdoor school is arguably access. Currently, the majority of so-called forest schools are private schools for which tuition can be tens of thousands of dollars a year for a full-time program. Though some organizations like BOPN offer income-based financial aid, spots are limited.
Alternatively, some families might opt to follow a nature-based homeschool curriculum or join an outdoor homeschool co-op, but these options require parents or caregivers who are willing and able to direct their child's education full-time.
Aside from the financial aspects of accessibility, geography also plays a role. Despite significant expansion, there simply aren't outdoor school programs available in all corners of the country. Whether a space issue (different areas of the country have widely different access to open areas) or a population issue (not enough local demand), not every family will have a nature school program in their area. Additionally, most states won't license preschool programs that have no physical building, which cuts these programs off from state funding and in some cases, limits the hours they can operate.
These issues have also led to a diversity problem. According to a 2017 survey, just 3 percent of children in outdoor preschool programs are Black, 7 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native. The reality is that the children attending these programs are predominantly white and from high-income families.
Even when space and availability aren't issues, location certainly plays a role in how feasible a 100 percent outdoor school program can be. Cold weather can be a big issue, but there are ways to work around it. The keys are wearing the right clothes (which can be a barrier for low-income families) and keeping kids moving, says Sinelien, who grew up in Haiti but has gotten used to the cold climate of Boston.
"We show parents how to dress the kids in layers and get the clothes they need to keep them warm in winter," she says. "We have extra hand warmers, blankets, and clothing for those really cold days." But shelters against rain and snow need to be factored in, as well as for scorching heat for some areas in the country.
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Ultimately, outdoor school programs will not be a feasible option for the majority of American families any time soon. But leaders in the field do believe that at least some aspects of nature-based schools—such as prioritizing time outdoors and encouraging child-led activities—could be adopted by more conventional early-education programs with proper funding, creativity, and a shift in thinking. Dr. Larimore, who consults with K-5 schools on outdoor education, sees challenges in moving an entire school to an outdoor model but also sees the opportunities.
"We'll see some schools have the same activities they would do inside that just happen to be outside on the playground," says Larimore. "But then we will see others that take advantage of the opportunity to make nature the center of the curriculum." Most teachers aren't trained this way, she says, but "for those teachers that are willing to go there, to be more child-led and place-based, it's an opportunity. Is it easy? No. But is it worth it? Absolutely."
Wendy Schuman writes for national publications on family, education, and social issues. She lives in West Orange, New Jersey.