Today on the front page of the Duluth News Tribune nature preschools in the Duluth area are being recognized for the the impact they are having on the community. I am so proud to be a part of this movement that is paying attention to what childhood is really about, learning through play! Please read the following article written by Jana Hollingsworth to learn what myself and my fellow nature play educators are excited to be sharing with others.
Eleven hammocks draped in mosquito netting are arranged around a large basswood in a quiet Duluth forest.
One day in July each held a small child wrapped cocoon-like, clutching “stuffies” or blankets. The sleeping children lay under filtered sunlight and a canopy of greenery. Far enough away from the civilization of Arrowhead Road, only birds and a breeze made any audible sounds during an hour of rest.
The hammocks are where the kids who attend the Secret Forest Playschool nap each day. The school occupies space both inside Eastridge Community Church and behind it, using a base camp, garden, winding creek, trails and thick stands of trees as components to a large outdoor classroom. The kids ages 3-6 spend their days engaged in self-directed, unstructured outdoor playtime in the creek, exploring trails, building forts, gardening and creating art or science projects from things found in nature.
“These kids are physical: They wrestle, run and jump. There are no walls and ceilings, and because of that it’s freedom,” said teacher Meghan Morrow, who started the first school of this type in Duluth in 2012. “At this age it’s hard to confine them and put out rules and expectations. That comes soon enough.”
In an era of ever-present technology and increasing academic rigor for young kids, the teaching style at Secret Forest and other nature-based preschools in the Duluth area — a category that continues to grow — seems almost quaint. But proponents of nature play say it builds resiliency, stamina and creativity, self-regulation and social skills and emotional stability and good health; all part of a solid school-readiness foundation for kindergarten and beyond. It’s a concept that’s long been popular in Scandinavia.
Kids aren’t spending enough time outside, developing independently, said Laura Whittaker, owner and teacher of the Wind Ridge Schoolhouse on Observation Hill.
“This is a direct response to try to meet those needs,” she said. “To offer them a childhood, and delay that academic intensity.”
Her small class still learns the alphabet and the names of plants and flowers, for example, but that’s not the point.
“Nature play is so connected to brain development,” Whittaker said. “They learn how to learn by being outside.”
Research points to several benefits that come from outdoor learning, said Julie Athman Ernst, a professor with the University of Minnesota Duluth and director of its Master of Environmental Education Program.
She said some studies show improved fine and gross motor skills, lowered anxiety levels, a higher self-concept and improved language skills. Her research involves whether kids develop resiliency through such programs.
“We have a concern that with early childhood — the way we are parenting and educating — of not having kids who can bounce back in the face of hardship and the face of adversity,” Ernst said.
The resiliency, says Whittaker, comes from the risk-taking involved in being outdoors. It’s a risk emotionally and physically to try something new, like climbing a tree. Socially, risk comes from engaging other kids in imaginative play, she said. And kids learn from their successes and failures in these areas, “which may be one of the most important pieces children learn from nature play,” she said.
She cited the following example from her students: Some kids struggle to climb trees and also to drop down from them. They watch a student who does it well, and then they practice.
“They come to the same spot for weeks, even months. They understand that, OK, I have to wait for my body to grow, to get stronger,” Whittaker said.
When they can do it, “the whole group celebrates with them and you can see how this particular moment is going to impact how they approach struggle in the future,” she said. “And this can happen for every child.”
At the Hartley Nature Preschool — the biggest in the area with 92 kids enrolled this fall — the kids have the 600-plus acres of Hartley Park to explore. (An outdoor playscape was destroyed in the recent windstorm.) The school cites puddle jumping as an activity. Teacher Kaitlin Erpestad explained that it requires balance and teaches kids to take turns. The activity leads to questions from them, like where does the water come from and where does it go?
“There are all these things to talk about at their level, with what’s going on in the natural world,” she said.
At April Hepokoski’s Little Barnyard Preschool situated on five acres in Esko, kids practice animal husbandry, along with more typical outdoor activities. They hold baby bunnies the day they are born, feed goats and chickens and help raise them. They mix batter for cornbread and cook eggs they collected themselves. It’s teaching sustainability, and it’s also child-led learning, Hepokoski said.
“If one group is fascinated with the hatching of ducklings, we focus on that,” she said.
Outdoor landscapes are ever-changing, and that forces kids to pay attention, and use all of their senses, Morrow said. Through outdoor play, they develop compassion and empathy as they help each other, and make many decisions on their own.
“There are moments I sit back and am tense when I watch them play,” she said, but she only intervenes if she must. “Most times they are very capable. That’s hard to remember as an adult.”
At Wind Ridge, kids spent much of their time on the Superior Hiking Trail, found steps away from the schoolhouse.
One day in July the class spent the morning exploring the trail and picking juneberries and raspberries; they know which berries can be eaten and which will make them sick. The kids roasted imaginary marshmallows on sticks and ran an imaginary ice cream shop. Whittaker, who often sings to get the attention of the kids, scouted an area off-trail before setting them loose, warning this day of slippery rocks. At one point several children climbed a downed tree and pretended it was a fire engine. One child, appearing to need quiet time, went to the edge of the group to examine some berries alone. Another laid down on a rock and acted out the hatching of an eaglet.
“Isn’t it amazing,” said assistant teacher Carley Cohen, “to see them run without a care in the world, through all obstacles?”
‘No bad weather’
Duluth has a handful of the 176 preschools in the country that are part of the Natural Start Alliance, a coalition of educators, parents and organizations dedicated to connecting kids to nature and care for the environment.
The growth of such programming in the city is a “no-brainer,” outdoor teachers say.
“Every person in Duluth lives within a quarter mile of a trail of some kind,” Erpestad said, pointing also to easy access to Lake Superior and the city’s 42 streams. “We want children and their families to use all of those spaces and to feel comfortable using them.”
All of these schools have indoor quarters for reading, resting, eating and gathering. But the majority of each session is spent outside, even in cold weather, subscribing to the “no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing” motto, with the exception of lightning. So intent is Morrow on maintaining her outdoor philosophy, she installed a composting toilet near her class’s base camp for emergencies. Sleeping outdoors, however, is for temperatures between 50 degrees and 80 degrees. The winter allows for snowshoes, campfires and storytelling. This type of preschool makes for hardy kids, its teachers say. In the winter, on very cold days, it can feel as if they are the only ones outdoors, Whittaker said.
Accessible to all?
Most of the area programs are small — 12 kids or less — with deep wait lists. Like most preschools — one notable exception is the federally-funded Head Start — they charge tuition. They vary in whether they are open year-round and offer half or whole day care, or more than twice a week. Cost and access can be a barrier to this type of program, Ernst said.
“How do we make this available across a range of backgrounds?” she asked.
A program in Seattle worked with the city park system to open preschools across the city, she said, and by eliminating the cost of facilities was able to offer a lower-cost program. The same could be explored in Duluth, she said, noting that one could argue the kids who can’t afford such a program could most benefit from it.
“What we have learned is how critical those early years are,” Ernst said. “It’s almost, in a way, scary the way it sets the course for life. What happens in those years matters.”
The Hartley Nature Preschool received a local grant to do outreach with non-nature-based preschools, talking to educators about how outdoor play can be incorporated and barriers can be removed.
“We’re encouraging other programs to take lessons outdoors,” Erpestad said, “and to bring natural elements in. The idea is that nature play isn’t exclusive to somewhere like Hartley.”
One message of a group that’s formed — the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative — is that schools shouldn’t take away recess or outdoor play as punishment for bad behavior, she said, noting “it’s especially (kids who misbehave) who need time outdoors moving their bodies.”
Morrow says there aren’t enough programs of this type in the area to fill the demand, with families being turned away for lack of space.
‘She is so ready’
Dori Streit’s daughter, Ari, was a cautious child at age 3 when she started attending the Wind Ridge Schoolhouse. But Streit has seen Ari, age 5, “transform” she said, and become brave and confident in her own body.
“Yesterday she rode a two-wheel bike like it was nothing,” Streit said. “She climbs trees and jumps out of trees. She comes home and she’s got bruises and scrapes, but it’s evidence she’s using her body. You have to have those struggles to master those skills.”
Nathan Kesti’s 4-year-old daughter, Cedar, attends the Secret Forest school. She has developed a sense of adventure, but in a safe way, he said, and has become inquisitive, noticing the world around her.
“We’ll be on a walk and she will say, ‘let’s lie down and listen,’” he said. “She isn’t going to be afraid of nature. She will respect it and cherish it.”
Esko resident Zada Dunaiski likes that her son’s school, the Little Barnyard Preschool, is based on problem-solving techniques versus memorization, for example.
“He requires a lot of physical activity,” she said, and he comes home “wiped out” and dirty from school — a good thing, in her eyes.
The kinds of activities the school offers reduce stress and increase her son’s attention span, while teaching real-life skills, she said.
Ari’s ability to focus and bring creativity into play will help her “think outside the box” as she ages, said Streit, noting Ari will attend Lowell Elementary School’s new Spanish immersion program this fall.
“She is so ready for kindergarten,” Streit said.
Nature-based preschools, kindergartens and programs with outdoor components in the Duluth area:
Sometimes you just need to kick your shoes (or boots) off and PLAY!
Tracy Byrne, a podiatrist specialising in podopaediatrics, believes that wearing shoes at too young an age can hamper a child's walking and cerebral development, "Toddlers keep their heads up more when they are walking barefoot," she says. "The feedback they get from the ground means there is less need to look down, which is what puts them off balance and causes them to fall down." Walking barefoot, she continues, develops the muscles and ligaments of the foot, increases the strength of the foot's arch, improves proprioception (our awareness of where we are in relation to the space around us) and contributes to good posture."
It makes sense to me, let them go barefoot :)
This past week while many of the local schools were on break I invited Playschool graduates from years past to join the little ones and myself for a few days in The Secret Forest. To have our old friends back in the space that they helped create felt so right. Seeing them walk through the door in the morning, listening to their excitement as they ran down the trails and connecting with their families at pickup brought back so many good memories.
The children that have left Playschool have left with experiences that have prepared them for their journeys beyond these woods. And even though they don't practice raising their hands and wait to get called on, standing in a line or filling out worksheets these big-little ones assured their younger peers, who were curious about "real school", that when they got to kindergarten they knew what to do!
When I asked the graduates what they missed the most about their days at Playschool their honest answers reminded me to slow down and appreciate some of the smallest parts of our daily routine:
"The lupines in the summer."
"Show and Tell!"
"That bird! I remember it!" (a black capped chickadee)
"My favorite place... The broken down tree."
"Making fairy houses."
Watching these friends pick up right where they left off with their old friends was something that I hoped for but it was better than I imagined. They told stories and shared memories of things that they used to do together, they played together (sometimes talking and other times in silence because its as if they understood each other so well that words didn't need to be spoken) and when the day was over they parted ways knowing that the next time they would get together to play in this space that is would feel as though no time had passed.
These growing spirits continue to inspire me and bring me such joy. It has been a week filled with homecomings. I look forward to years of reuniting old friends for new adventures
deep in The Secret Forest.
Just this past weekend was our 4th annual Family Sledding and Potluck. It took place on a cold night with temperatures barley reaching above zero, As families started to arrive at 5pm with sleds in tow, food in their hands and a smile on their face you could tell it was going to be a great event, and it was!
Inside the building there was a buffet of warm food, tables filled with people catching up on life, and a bounce house that was never empty. Outside the stars were out, the fire was crackling and when you looked at the sledding hill you saw head lamps bouncing up and down and heard shills of laughter :) With over 50 people in attendance (babies, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, parents and friends) there was no shortage of fun being had.
Around 7:30pm while everyone was packing up their little ones to head home for bed I overhead a parent say "this was the perfect night"... I couldn't have said it better myself. Thank you to everyone for filling my heart with so much LOVE for this amazing community that we have here. I am already looking forward to our next get together :)
I am Meghan Morrow, the founder and lead teacher at Secret Forest Playschool in Duluth, MN. This blog is a way for me to share some of the amazing moments that I witness and the lessons that I learn from some of the wisest people I know... children.