Late last month, environmental educator Sarah Chatwood took a group of Billings preschoolers canoeing on a small pond a stone’s throw from the Yellowstone River as part of the nature-based preschool she’s run since 2015. For some students, it was their first time in a canoe.

It was an uncommonly warm bluebird day on the Montana Audubon Center grounds, a 54-acre reclaimed gravel pit that now boasts three ponds, a healthy stand of cottonwood trees, an abundance of largely avian wildlife, and Fledglings, one of Montana’s first nature-based preschools.

“These are the days where I wonder why people pay me to do this, because I would do it for free,’” Chatwood said of the outing.

If demand for Chatwood’s program is any indication, her students’ enthusiasm matches her own. Like many nature-based preschools across the country, Fledglings has seen dramatic growth in enrollment over the past several years, and its outdoor setting — about 80% of students’ days are spent outside, even during winter — has become highly attractive to parents concerned about the potential for COVID-19 spread at indoor preschools, Chatwood said. 

Despite coronavirus-induced disruptions to operations earlier this year — Chatwood temporarily shuttered Fledglings when Gov. Steve Bullock ordered Montana schools to close this spring — the school’s offerings are as highly sought after as ever. At parents’ request, Fledglings added a new class this fall, increasing the school’s enrollment by nearly 20%. 

Chatwood attributes parents’ continued enthusiasm to both Fledglings’ largely outdoor model and its emphasis on the kind of experiential learning and screen-free social interactions young kids are wired for — and especially hungry for right now. Plus, she said, “I think a lot of [parents] are thinking about what their childhood looked like, and they want that for their children.”

Chatwood started Fledglings six years ago. Her daughter was preschool age at the time, and Chatwood had been thinking about using her own background as an educator and naturalist to develop the style of program she wanted for her daughter — something that emphasized the kind of play-based schooling that would help her daughter develop confidence and resilience while engaging her with the natural world.

She also wanted to design something that celebrated the freedom and independence reflective of what she calls “old-school parenting.” She paired her recollection of her own relatively free-ranging childhood with research she and her colleagues conducted on forest schools in Germany, Sweden and Finland, and opened Fledglings with six students. Fledglings now has 56 students, and enough interest to field several more classes if there were more space for it.

Preschoolers at Fledglings Nature Preschool in Billings help plant a tree. Credit: Photo courtesy of Fledglings Nature Preschool.

“We had a whole group of kids graduate last [summer] and then find themselves in this situation where they’re either homeschooling or they’re online learning,” Chatwood said of COVID-19’s influence on education delivery. “[Their parents] were just so sad about what their kids’ kindergarten experience would be. Several of them reached out to me and said, ‘Is there any way I can re-enroll my child in preschool?’”

Chatwood and her team did some on-the-fly planning and developed a kindergarten enrichment program for nine of these students that now meets twice a week. “[The kids] are all loving it and their parents are telling me that this is the best thing that’s coming out of the pandemic,” she said.

In many respects, Fledglings’ trajectory aligns closely with nature-based education trends nationally: It’s undergone several years of exponential growth, has tangled with a recent spate of coronavirus-spurred complications, and is seeing increasing demand to offer school-age children the outdoor educational opportunities more commonly offered to younger kids.

According to Natural Start Alliance, an organization that promotes access to early-childhood environmental education, the number of nature-based preschools, so-called forest kindergartens and outdoor preschools (collectively known as nature preschools) in the U.S. has grown 25-fold over the past decade, and more than doubled over the past three years to approximately 585. 

To help explain the rise, Natural Start Alliance Director Christy Merrick points to research demonstrating that time spent outside can benefit kids’ communication skills, focus and self-regulation. One study of more than 27,000 school-age children in Massachusetts found a link between green spaces and students’ reading and math abilities.

“The research is pretty clear that pretty much every area of childhood development benefits from children spending time outdoors,” Merrick said, adding that the importance of play and connection shouldn’t be discounted right now, given how children have been impacted by COVID-19 and efforts to limit its spread.

 RISKY PLAY AND RESILIENT CHILDREN

In addition to using the natural world as an organizing theme and helping children develop environmental literacy, nature preschools encourage risky play — activities that carry the risk of physical injury while helping children test limits and develop confidence. Risky play is touted as a way for children to build emotional resilience and described as a standard that was much more common before the term “helicopter parent” joined the American lexicon.

Chatwood said that for Fledglings’ charges, risky play could be tree-climbing, sword play with sticks, allowing students to leave an adult’s sight, or letting kids wrestle or engage in other forms of roughhousing. She lauds the confidence and trust — between teachers and students, and between fellow students — that nature-based programs encourage, in large part due to their emphasis on risky play.

“I think they carry that [confidence] through their whole lives,” she said, adding that risky play is good for developing executive function, a suite of mental processes that enables people to organize and evaluate information and regulate their behavior.

Developmentally, preschool-age kids thrive with the kind of exploratory play and physical activity that nature preschools offer, said Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

“It’s the perfect age range to be having classrooms outside. They’re in such an exploratory age and there’s so much going on, from socialization and physical development [to] emotional development,” Williams said. “Their little brains are just dying to do things that are based in the real world. They love working with real tools and seeing cause and effect from building things outside.”

Preschool students at Foxtail Forskola in Whitefish take a walk in the woods. Credit: Photo courtesy of Foxtail Forskola

Williams added that, contrary to what some might expect, children who participate in nature preschools don’t appear to struggle academically when they later enroll in more traditional schools. “[Studies in Europe are finding] that kids transition pretty well, and in fact do better than other kids in terms of their social and emotional [skills],” she said.

Nature preschools are much more common on the other side of the Atlantic. One in 10 European kids attends one, Williams said. In the U.S., nature preschools are largely composed of students whose families can afford tuition, which often runs higher than traditional preschools, though some programs offer scholarships and other forms of financial assistance.

Access is an issue that Natural Start Alliance has been tracking. White children are overrepresented and children with disabilities and dual-language learners are underrepresented in nature preschools, the organization noted in its 2020 report, which points out that disparities in access to high-quality education are widespread in the United States generally.

‘PLAY IS A CHILD’S WORK’

It would be logical to assume that nature preschools — particularly those that are 100% outdoors — are heavily concentrated in warmer, southerly states, but that’s not necessarily the case. By the Natural Start Alliance’s calculation, Minnesota has more nature preschools per capita than any other state, regardless of its bitterly cold winters. And many Northern European countries are known for their forest schools despite challenging weather.

Climate was at the front of Kayla Nickells’ mind when she started thinking about the kind of program she wanted to create in Whitefish, where the average daily high in January is 28 degrees Fahrenheit. She looked to Scandinavian models to guide her as she developed Foxtail Förskola, a program she and her husband, Stefan, started in June 2018 with six students at EarthStar Farm. After bumping Foxtail’s capacity to 45 kids by expanding into a second location on another area farm, Foxtail still has a waitlist.

The heavy emphasis on outdoor time — Nickells said Foxtail students spend 100% of their school time outside in the summer, and about 80% in the winter — is one of the reasons parents have been drawn to her förskola (Danish for “preschool.”) That was true before the pandemic, but it’s especially true now. 

“We definitely have parents reaching out and saying, ‘I don’t necessarily feel safe with my child in their current program — do you have any openings?’” Nickells said, adding that some of the Swedish and German schools she’s studied have long traditions of using outdoor learning environments to beat plagues. “We’re not preaching anything new, it just feels like people in the U.S. are now more open to hear what we have to say.” 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci has expressed support for the tenets of outdoor schooling as a pandemic response as well. In late July, he urged U.S. school districts to find as many ways as possible to incorporate outside activities into their programming.

Over the course of a typical day, Foxtail students might engage in imaginative play, go for a hike, and help with light farm chores like gathering eggs, feeding sheep, or tossing food scraps to pigs. Nickells said it’s easy for teachers to make a quick counting lesson out of collecting eggs, for example. In the afternoon, kids will take to their hammocks for a nap if it’s warm enough to do so. In wintertime, they strap on cross-country skis or snowshoes and explore the woods. Making and drinking a “forest tea” with edible plants and fir needles they’ve gathered is another favorite activity. It’s one of the practices Nickells adopted after her yearly visit to Europe to learn more about how her counterparts in Germany, Italy, Sweden and Denmark operate.

Preschool students at Foxtail Forskola in Whitefish collect eggs, learning counting through chores.

Asked why forest schools aren’t more common in the United States, neither Nickells nor the Natural Start Alliance’s Merrick had a ready answer. After some reflection, Nickells emailed a response:

“The U.S. doesn’t have a great deal of social equity, which forces us to feel that we have to give our children every possible chance [to get] ahead. There’s a major fear in the U.S. about our kids falling behind. And since Forest School looks different than what we’re all accustomed to and kids aren’t behind a desk, U.S. parents often don’t see it as a legitimate learning environment. Our school has often been referred to as a camp — like, it’s just play.

“But play is a child’s work, their way of making sense of the world. Our focus should be on enhancing those social-emotional and executive functioning skills that they are going to need for the rest of their lives. You can’t build a house if you don’t have a strong foundation.”

Whitefish-based speech and language pathologist Patty Johnson said she’s been impressed with the problem-solving, cooperation and resilience Foxtail has helped her 5-year-old son, Gus, develop. He’s the kind of busy kid who might be steered toward an ADHD diagnosis in a more traditional program, she said, but at Foxtail he thrives.

Rather than enrolling Gus in a traditional kindergarten this fall, she opted to put him in the Forest Kindergarten program Foxtail just launched. Gus and his classmates still spend most of their time outside, but math and science instruction from a veteran Montessori teacher is incorporated into their schedule, and Johnson contributes her speech and language pathology skills three times a week.

Johnson said eventually she’ll probably enroll Gus in public school. But this year, she feels fortunate to have the Foxtail option for her family, she said — “especially with the COVID piece.”

She said she wishes nature-based education could be available to more families, regardless of socioeconomic or other circumstances. “I’d love to see this form of school nationwide be more accessible to a more diverse family profile,” she said. 


This story is part of continuing Montana Free Press coverage of community responses to COVID-19 supported by the Solutions Journalism Network


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Billings native Amand Eggert is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. She’s currently a freelance writer covering the environment, the impact of public policy, and what it means to live in the Mountain West in the 21st century. Contact Amanda at eggert.amanda@gmail.com.