This was an article that I had the pleasure of writing for Urban Baby and Toddler magazine for their Spring 2016 issue. To see the print article, click here and turn to page 22.
Outdoor Preschool: it’s a new trend in British Columbia that has been emerging for the past few years, and it is being met with curiosity, interest and skepticism. The notion and importance of outdoor play are on the forefront of many people’s minds today, as it’s no secret that our children seem to be inundated with technology, video games and too much screen time. Further, it seems that to achieve order and balance in our lives, we tend to overschedule, overlearn and overdo everything – from activities to information – leading to burnout and exhaustion, both for children and adults alike.
We’d be wise to look to the culture of Europe, specifically the Scandinavian region, who have been running outdoor schools – preschool, kindergarten and more – for three decades or more.
The Scandinavian approach to using the outdoors as a part of the education philosophy is one that includes learning and developing in natural environments. Research has shown that the child’s sense of creativity, self-worth, independence and tolerance thrives in an outdoor setting. Not that this doesn’t happen in traditional schools, but from a child’s perspective, the creativity that is fostered from having to “build” or construct a play area from only elements of nature facilitates an amazing aptitude for these humane traits.
Forest preschools can be met with some parental hesitation, as the entire curriculum is built outside – rain or shine. It can be the coldest day of the year – it doesn’t matter – and the children will remain outdoors.
Urban Baby and Toddler Magazine had an opportunity to speak with Katelynn Tekavc, a consultant for the Township of Langley’s forest school program. Katelynn is an ECE and a mother of two, both of whom have participated in the Langley Forest School, and has an abundance of experience and knowledge in the field.
According to Katelynn, a typical forest school day involves meeting at the outdoor location and an adventure walk through the park and/or trails. The children look for signs of what Mother Nature has brought to the Earth that day, such as ice, frost, fallen leaves, and insects. After the nature walk, the children gather for a snack and a warm drink (if it’s extremely cold), and on particularly cold days, a communal gathering around a fire that they have all assisted to build. This is usually an opportune time for the teachers to introduce any new observations or concepts that were observed on that day’s nature walk, and to discuss what was seen or felt from these observations.
Not only are they learning about their natural environment and an appreciation for Mother Nature, but they are also introduced to concepts such as natural habitats, weight variance (whether things float or sink in a puddle), salmon spawning, life cycles of insects, and much more. Afterward is free play, games and stories, and last of all, children are encouraged to sit quietly for the last 10 minutes of class and reflect what they have learned that day.
Two critical elements that come from a forest preschool that may not necessarily be as prevalent in a traditional indoor preschool are exposure to risk and free, non-associated play.
Free, non-associated play outdoors differs from what children do indoors. Indoors, children have toys and playthings that already have associated meaning. For example, that kitchen set usually (but not always) exists as a kitchen set. The doctor kit is most commonly used for playing doctor. The puzzle is a puzzle, etc. On the other hand, while outside, the children’s imaginations are further expanded as they assign meaning to a stick, a stump, a bubbling brook, and they create and construct meaning to the toys through pure imagination. This type of free play has been found to develop their motor skills and allows them to make decisions and solve problems, thanks to the more variable and less structured space of outdoors. Further, outdoor environments impose fewer constraints on children’s movement, allowing for more possibilities for gross motor exploration.
Finally, exposure to healthy amounts of risky play is not only essential to a child’s development but is in danger of being eliminated entirely from our children’s lives. We as a culture have become quite focused on removing all risk from our children’s lives – think of the term helicopter parents – and even further have fostered a bit of a culture of fear, thanks to rampant media. Little do we realize that risky play is an imperative, essential part of childhood, as it plays a crucial role in developing the child’s emotional regulating mechanisms, such as fear and anger. When the child engages in risky activities, such as over climbing a tall tree or jumping off a high platform, the child may feel fear. If they achieve climbing that tall tree, they learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive. If they don’t climb it, they are learning self-regulating techniques and exploring their limits. Even more, in rough and tumble play, such as wrestling, the child may feel anger or aggression if one person accidentally hurts another. Succumbing to the anger comes with the consequence of disengaging from the play – whereas feeling the anger and moving on from it rewards the child with re-engagement in the activity. As quoted from Psychology today, “according to the emotion regulation theory, play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotion”.
This is not to say that children won’t experience all these skills and rewards when engaged in a traditional indoor schooling system – it’s just as important an experience as any outdoor one. It’s just incredibly important to ensure that children are not becoming “nature deficient”.
In short, if you aren’t one that’s keen on an outdoor school curriculum, you can always just make an effort to go outside and play more! After all, we live in one of the most diverse and vibrant places in the world, perfect for facilitating a child’s imagination.
Currently several forest schools are operating in the Greater Vancouver and outlying areas. Check out the following websites for more information:
West Vancouver http://www.saplingsoutdoorprogram.ca/
North Vancouver: http://www.freshairlearning.org/
Bowen Island http://www.littlenestforestpreschool.com/
There is also a new outdoor preschool opening in the greater Surrey area in spring of 2016.