What gets kids outside at school on super cold days? Where I live, if it’s under 34 degrees and you’re in a public school, your walk into the building is about the extent of it. Even rain or muddy playgrounds are reason to stay inside at lots of schools and preschools. What’s a nature-loving parent to do?
For one, go to the March 25 Shirlington Library showing of the documentary “School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten” sponsored by NoVA Outside, an alliance of environmental educators whose tagline is “Kids grow better outside.” The film explores the development of social and cognitive skills through outdoor play. Studies show that being outside reduces stress and can support higher academic achievement. In forest schools, learning occurs outdoors in almost all conditions. The idea is that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.
After a several cold days of “indoor recess” at my children’s school, and upon learning of some great programs through NoVA Outside, I set out to find preschools with a focus on outdoor learning. I’m sure there are more to find, but I’ve already uncovered as many gems as you might find beetles under a rotting log!
The new Eastern Ridge School near Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia is inspired by forest schools and the Reggio Emilia philosophy. Previously known as Discovery Woods Learning Community, Eastern Ridge has recently reorganized as a non-profit organization headed up by parents and staff. Children ages 2 to 10 come expecting to spend most of their day outside, including with animals, gardens, wooded play areas and creative workshop space. Parents can register for an open house program on Saturday, February 22 for a 10 a.m. to see the space.
Also holding an open house on February 22, 9-11 a.m., is Frog Pond Early Learning Center, which is celebrating 15 years of programming for children 18 months old through pre-K. Located in Alexandria, Virginia, near Huntley Meadows Wildlife Refuge, where little feet get to hike regularly, Frog Pond also has goats and chickens on its mini-farm.
Two other programs south of the Beltway include Tauxemont Cooperative Preschool serving ages 3-5 in a natural woodland setting and Burgundy Farm Country Day School, which goes from junior kindergarten through middle school on a 500-acre campus that includes a farm.
The Audubon Naturalist Society is about to pilot Fresh Air Kids, a six-week parent-child program at the Rust Nature Sanctuary in Leesburg, Virginia starting March 28. There are hopes for preschool programs at Rust in the future like those already in place at the ANS Chevy Chase facility. The Audubon Nature Preschool at Woodend Nature Sanctuary serves ages 5 and under and also holds summer camps and parent-tot programs.
Also in Chevy Chase is the Outdoor Nursery School, the subject of a 2012 Bethesda magazine article that describes the benefits of learning outdoors. The school serves ages 2.5 to pre-K. Children take whatever they are working on outside most days, twice for short stints on cold days. Walks are popular during rain and snow.
Waldorf education has a long history of connecting children to nature through time spent outdoors and also a philosophy that draws inspiration from the seasons. Local Waldorf schools include Arlington’s Potomac Crescent Waldorf School (infant through grade 3), Takoma Park’s Acorn Hill Waldorf School (infant to 6 years) and Bethesda’s Washington Waldorf School (infancy through grade 12). Listed among the Washington Waldorf Early Childhood Program offerings is an outdoor-only parent-child class for children ages 2 and 3, a class my daughter and I greatly enjoyed last spring and from which the photos here come.
There are so many other interesting programs out there. Mother of two Sarah Novak Nesbitt attended Geneva Day School in Potomac, MD as a child and says her son goes out in almost all weather. Bethesda Reggio calls itself a “nature-oriented preschool” that also offers dual-language curriculum in Spanish and English. In Ashburn, St. David’s Episcopal School has a Go WILD enrichment program for kindergarteners at the school. WILD stands for Wonder, Investigate, Learn, and Discover, and the 11:30-2:30 program takes place exclusively outside in all but the most extreme weather conditions.
Going out in all types of weather is a daily event at Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool, for children in the infant/toddler classes on up to pre-K. Teacher JJ Gardiner encourages parents not to think of time on the playground as “recess” but to see the learning that goes on when children are freed from limits and from the watchful eyes of adults who might intervene and shift the course of a social interaction.
Parents at AUCP are expected to dress children appropriately for outdoor play, as are parents at The Country Day School in McLean. Country Day has nine playgrounds, a nature trail, and an outdoor stage. Curriculum coordinator Dorothy McIntire says that exploration and manipulation of natural materials are “such innate qualities of child development” that children need minimal support in these activities.
The tagline for Fiore Montessori is “where children blossom in nature.” Located across the street from Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia, Fiore has a large natural play area, as does Montessori School of Northern Virginia in Annandale. Nancy Striniste of EarlySpace designed the natural play are at MSNV as well as Alexandria’s Fort Hunt Preschool and Arlington’s Reggio-Emilia-inspired Faith Lutheran Preschool. Alexandria’s Beverly Hills Cooperative Preschool, also a Reggio Emilia-inspired program, is currently building a natural playground which teachers will consider “another classroom” with the goal of “removing barriers between the outdoors and indoors,” according to director Margaret Moran.
In the District, Amazing Life Games cooperative preschool is a progressive education school with multiple outdoor learning opportunities for children aged 2.5 to 5 at its Northwest DC campus. “Those kids are always outside!” said one of my friends. Mother of three Kate Sullivan Hare chose St. Columba’s Nursery School over a free public school where her son won a coveted lottery spot because of its large outdoor playground and outdoor focus.
The National Child Research Center in Cleveland Park is a play-based preschool serving ages 2.5 to 5 with a commitment to the inclusion of special needs children. The campus has extensive play areas and outdoor education and environmental education curricula.
In addition to traditionally-structured schools, there are also homeschooling groups, including Waldorf-inspired cooperative Riverbend Garden in Oakton and Greenbelt, MD-based Ancestral Knowledge, which “uses the wilderness as [its] classroom.” Many nature centers also have classes and activities for homeschoolers, and parents around the area informally create outdoor coops that function like forest schools.
What are the gems among public schools when it comes to outdoor education?
Snow photo on homepage courtesy of The Country Day School in McLean, Virginia.
Jessica Claire Haney is a writer and editor and the founder and a co-leader of the Arlington/Alexandria chapter of Holistic Moms Network. She is a parent of two children in public school and is building a new resource for DC-area families interested in natural living. MindfulHealthyLife.com will launch in April 2014 (and has a temporary home at DC Healthy Green Families). She blogs at Crunchy-Chewy Mama and tweets @crunchychewy. She hopes you will tell her what she missed in this piece so she can add it to a future one!