CHICAGO — On a hazy September afternoon near a willow tree, a boy with a bright red backpack spotted something slimy on the ground.
“Hello, all the mushrooms,” he said, gently tapping the fungus, trying not to crush any as his small feet moved through the grass.
A teacher asked why they might be growing in that spot. The boy thought for a moment. “Because it’s shady and wet!”
That was just one lesson for the group of kids at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool, a program that’s part of the growing field of nature-based early childhood education.
Nature preschools were increasing before the pandemic, more than doubling in the last three years, according to a report from the Natural Start Alliance, a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. The report estimates 585 schools across the country have nature-based education at their core, meaning a significant amount of time is spent outside. Illinois is among the states with the most programs — topping 20. California and Washington, with about 50 programs each, lead the list.
Aerosol transmission of the coronavirus has raised concerns over safety of walled-off spaces, and some parents are wondering if one solution during the pandemic is as simple as stepping outside.
Ann Halley, director of the Botanic Garden school and a member of the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association, said enrollment has increased by more than 60% in the last year alone, and many families are new.
Some programs in the Chicago area have indoor spaces but are scheduled to be largely outside through early summer, even when frigid weather arrives. The programs may use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wind chill chart as a guide for when to head inside, or pick up cues from the kids on their comfort level. But the winter weather ethos, generally, is bundle up.
With the widening field, teachers and parents are searching for ways to make programs more accessible. Child care center licensing standards, unique to each state, are primarily designed for indoor settings. In Illinois, outdoor programs can operate under exemptions. Supporters have proposed a bill modeled after one in Washington, which last year became the first state to officially license outdoor preschools.
There are a few pandemic-related tweaks this year at the Botanic Garden, which is a licensed program, like hand-washing and mask-wearing. There are no family-style snack options. Watering plants is allowed, but other water play is nixed.
The chance to follow the ups and downs of the natural world’s cycles — trees losing their leaves, buds returning — is still there.
Earlier in the day, a visit to the garden’s exhibit sparked a theme. “I see one. I see one!” said one girl, looking toward a black- and yellow-striped zebra longwing resting on some violet verbena. The class counted the flutters, one by one, the splashes of primary colors matching backpacks and headbands and masks. Later they stopped for a short story on some tree stumps: “My, Oh My — A Butterfly!”
At a quiet spot between two lakes, the kids transformed into the insects, flapping around. One boy in a dino mask put on some bat wings and ran off. A girl with pink wings asked what butterflies eat, then started her flower search.
Halley said that curiosity comes with the outdoors.
“Taking the children down to the cove area and just sitting and looking at the geese as they’re landing, just that sense of wonder and awe — those are things that can only be supplied when you’re outside,” Halley said. “They cannot be found inside a classroom. And these are the things that inspire lifelong learners.”
A ready-made classroom
This summer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, encouraged outdoor schooling. “Get as much outdoors as you can,” he said. “If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.” New York City announced a plan to use yards and nearby parks for outdoor learning. In Chicago, heading outside isn’t unprecedented; a tuberculosis outbreak in 1909 led to “open air schools.”
Outdoor preschools, more widespread and a cultural norm in some European countries, are good for kids’ cognitive development, cost-effective and a safer option during a pandemic, supporters say. Additionally, nature fosters resilience, sets kids up for greater academic success down the road and provides a ready-made classroom with lessons in science, math and even empathy. Local leaders in the field point to years of studies showing benefits ranging from sunlight’s positive effect on eyesight to stress reduction from green spaces.
When Megan Gessler learned about nature-based early childhood education at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool in Wisconsin more than a decade ago, there were few comparable examples in Illinois. Gessler continued her studies and was among those who created the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association, which started small in 2013 and now has more than 200 members.
This summer, Gessler, the early childhood program coordinator at the Morton Arboretum, created a position statement with national leaders in the field on “nature-based early education for all.” The group hopes it will be useful to those looking for guidance, as well as a call to action.
“We believe that right now, the pandemic has created an imperative to fundamentally change not just the look and feel of early learning but its very structure in a permanent manner,” Gessler said.
At the arboretum, there’s always a loose curriculum planned but space for kids’ particular interests. Every year, there’s a surprise. Like storm drains.
“I don’t have a curriculum written up for storm drains,” Gessler said. “I didn’t foresee that coming.”
But the kids spotted a drain outside the classroom and grew fond of stuffing it with sticks and leaves.
“And your first inclination is, ‘Would you please just stop putting those down there?’” Gessler said. “But then you have to take note and say, ‘OK, there is a lot of natural curiosity here. How can I run with this?’”
The next day Gessler brought ice cubes, some spouts from Menards, boxes, bungee cords. Suddenly the kids were learning about physics, gravity, engineering and the water cycle. They even gathered maps of every storm drain at the arboretum, picking up some mapping skills.
The next time the kids saw sticks on top of a storm drain after a heavy rain, they understood its purpose and cleared the sticks out.
This year, the program will be spending as much time as possible outside, Gessler said, September through May. They don’t anticipate canceling classes for weather but have an outdoor shelter with a fireplace, and an indoor classroom if the kids’ comfort level dips. Heading inside depends on a mix of factors: wind chill, temperature, sun, appropriate gear, exposed skin. The Botanic Garden program, also part time, similarly follows the NOAA wind chill chart and stays inside if it’s not safe to be outside for longer than 10 minutes.
“Studies have shown that even if you are in a classroom that has a window to the outdoor world, just having that green space that a child can look out on also benefits their academic performances at school,” Gessler said. “Even something as simple as a window changes them. So can you imagine how much it could change for a child if their studies were outside?”
A sprawling 1,700-acre space like the arboretum isn’t required to connect with nature, Gessler said.
“Nature exists in air, the clouds, the sky, the plants that grow up between the sidewalks,” she said. “It can look like something in downtown Chicago.”
Changing business as usual
In Kendall County, one school district is creating a learning space in a courtyard that could have Plexiglas instead of a chalkboard and maybe some handmade benches built by local families.
Andrea Bockewitz, a former English teacher, talked to parents and educators in Yorkville months ago about returning to school in the fall and remote learning’s challenges. Bockewitz, whose children attended a nature preschool at a forest preserve, connected with an early childhood teacher and floated outdoor learning at her child’s elementary school.
Now, in addition to the courtyard space, that school is adding a project that will be closer to a nature preschool, complete with a mud kitchen and hill.
Bockewitz said she hopes that the solutions won’t be temporary, and that larger districts follow Yorkville’s lead. She’s now working with another district in Sandwich.
“As an educator, I have been seeing this as an opportunity to change business as usual. I’m hoping that this is going to stick, that we are going to get kids outside more,” Bockewitz said. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do it. It just takes will and determination.”
Other parents have generally been supportive, Bockewitz said. There’s fear with change, but more than anything, the sticking point is the cold: What happens in November or December when the city freezes over? But, Bockewitz said, there’s always the possibility of bundling up and families donating extra snow pants from their closets so that kids can be around their peers.
One of the mantras Bockewitz gleaned from outdoor schooling is that “failure is part of the process.”
Sharon Danks, CEO of the national advocacy group Green Schoolyards America, said the group is among partner organizations working on a learning initiative that includes a how-to manual for schools going outside and a series of FAQ responses. About 140 schools and districts have asked for help with outdoor learning design plans.
“And thinking about how they can shift what they consider to be Plan A, the default plan.” Danks said. “Instead of it being automatically to go online or inside, what if outside was your Plan A?”
Teresa Weed, who used to run an outdoor program partnered with the Chicago Park District, is hoping legislation will be passed to formally outline an early childhood education model that will help outdoor preschools become accredited programs in the state.
Weed said she was fascinated by the idea that “the forest is the curriculum.” She ended up leading the Forest Playschool at Walking Stick Woods, which closed last year after complaints from some neighbors and a report from the Park District’s inspector general.
After seeing the growth from students at Forest, Weed said she would like to see the model made available to any interested families. Weed said she went to a forest school training in Scotland last spring, and when she explained why she was visiting, even the taxi driver knew about forest schools.
“You can teach anything outdoors, I think, with creativity,” Weed said. “There’s this sense of adventure and joy. It’s really enlivening, outdoor education. And it just seems like children who have been in isolation really need that. Children learn so much from other children.”
Weed has the support of some state representatives and is hoping for a meeting with the governor’s office to talk about next steps. She plans to cover how outdoor preschools can help make up for the emotional and physical learning lost during quarantine and online learning.
“(The Department of Children and Family Services) is still reviewing the proposed legislation,” agency spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement, “however there are already exemptions in place related to outdoor daycare which allow for collaboration with the owner of an open space to ensure basic safety measures are met.”
The proposed bill is modeled after the one passed in Washington state. “And there’s some question of, we need to adapt it for our climate,” Weed said. “But they have the worst weather. … Give me a nice, crisp 28 degrees with fresh snow and sunshine any day over 40 and rain.”
State Sen. Ram Villivalam of Chicago, a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement he supports the proposal.
“I strongly believe this discussion is especially timely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary stay-at-home orders as well as social distancing guidelines,” Villivalam said. “We have known yet have certainly learned more about the need for everyone, including children, to be outdoors for educational, recreational and mental health purposes.”
Lifesavers for parents
Disparities in nature schooling mirror those found in education at large, according to research from the Natural Start Alliance. White children are overrepresented in nature preschools and children with disabilities are underrepresented. Many programs are only part time.
Marilyn Brink, who works with Mary Crane Center, which offers Head Start programs for families in Chicago, said the center is asking how to transform some playgrounds into outdoor learning environments. The center is working on a site in the Austin neighborhood.
Nature play spaces can be more welcoming than traditional playgrounds, Brink said. “It’s more of an equalizer in terms of the opportunities that kids can find in nature play spaces,” she said. “Every child will find something that’s really magical.”
And, Brink said, “If they don’t have safe spaces in their neighborhood, these can be safe spaces for them.”
The Park District has nine nature play spaces, with five more in the works. Like playgrounds, they are technically closed due to the coronavirus.
But some parents have been meeting up at parks for early childhood nature play groups — lifesavers for parents after months inside and the closest to pre-pandemic socialization the kids are likely to find.
On a hot day at West Ridge Nature Preserve, in a spot tucked behind some black-eyed Susans as bright as the sky, a little voice behind a violet unicorn mask cried out above the thrum of cicadas: “Look!”
The little girl unfurled her fingers to reveal flecks of dirt and a slimy, puffy, writhing worm.
“What I love about forest school is people are interacting with the earth, they are not constricted, they can explore,” said Audrey Todd, an organizer of the group and a member of the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association. “Kids become creative and resilient.”
Later in the day, the kids made their way toward a small hill to scale. Some made it to the top. “Mosquitoes, get away from me,” one flustered boy said. “I am not getting one INCH dirtier.”
A few hovered near the bottom, watching their fellow masked playmates, calculating where they’d need to place each hand to make it to the top.
Nature offers “calm challenges,” Todd said.
Some of the kids said they were scared. But they kept going.
“And that’s so important — to feel scared and then move through it” Todd said. “If that’s not life, what is?”
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