How to find the right nature-based preschool…

So you are interested in enrolling your child in a nature preschool, but you don’t know exactly what to look for.  Well, each nature-based program can differ quite significantly.  Some programs hold classes outside all day with little to no indoor space.  Some programs bring outdoor elements into their existing classroom and extend the outdoor time by utilizing a nature-play space.  Curriculum can range from play-based to emergent interest to planned inquiry units.  Finding the right fit for your family is a personal choice.  Here are some things to look for or some questions to ask while on your tour:

  1.  What is the educational philosophy of the school? Does it support frequent and prolonged experiences in nature?
  2. How are the local community and environment reflected in the program and curriculum?
  3. What is the educational background of the staff?  Have they had formal training in early childhood education as well as environmental education? What is their rate of turnover? Do they receive ongoing professional development in nature-based education?
  4. Look at teacher-student interactions.  Are they positive? Does the teacher seem to enjoy spending time with children in nature? Ask the teacher what they like about working there. What is the teacher-student ratio? How do they handle social-emotional challenges?
  5. What does the daily schedule look like? Does it include time for free play in nature? Are there safety policies for nature play? Are there opportunities for students to engage in play that increases their confidence and skill in risk assessment?
  6. Can you picture your child thriving here? Will this school engage your child’s interests?  Will your child’s learning style be suited well at this program? Will their needs be met? Will they feel included and represented? Do the students appear happy and engaged?  Are they interacting positively? Is everyone doing the same activity at the same time or are activities open-ended with the ability for the child to flow from one activity to another? How are individual interests accommodated?
  7. If there is an indoor classroom, what is on the walls of the classroom?  Is it eye level for a child? Does it reflect student artwork? Does it reflect an emergent student interest? Are natural materials prevalent in the classroom? Plants or animals? Does the classroom reflect the local environment? Is it inclusive of the community? Does it feel warm and inviting?
  8. Is there an outdoor classroom or other spaces for children to engage in and with nature? Are those spaces given the same amount of consideration? Do the children spend equal or more time in nature as they do inside the classroom? Are there natural materials that the children can move and manipulate? Are the children allowed to touch and interact with their environment?
  9. Does the school impliment sustainability practices?
  10. How does the program share information with families regaring nature-based learning? How will the families be involved in that learning?

Check here for a map of nature-based preschools in your area.

About the Author: Megan Gessler is the Early Childhood Program Coordinator at The Morton Arboretum and the Founder of NINPA.

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