amyA new national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found that the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high. The study, conducted by four associations serving early childhood professionals, identified more than 250 nature preschools and kindergartens across the country – a 66% increase over the previous year’s tally of 150. The programs serve approximately 10,000 children every year, and eight out of ten programs reported that they started a waiting list in the previous twelve months.

In the Chicago area, this national trend is even more pronounced. There are 16 dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens in the area, more than double in the last decade, according to data from the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association (NINPA). And that growth includes campuses at some of the most respected regional environmental education facilities, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“I’m excited to see the growth in our area,” said Megan Gessler, President of NINPA and Manager of Natural Beginnings Early Learning Program in Yorkville, Ill. “But that growth really represents a small part of our overall impact. Beyond dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens, many traditional schools and programs are borrowing from our practices and philosophies.”

The Natural Start Alliance, one of the groups that conducted the survey, defines nature preschools as schools that use nature as the organizing principle for their programs. Nature preschools require their teaching staff to have skills and experience in both early childhood education and environmental education. A significant portion of the school day in nature preschools is spent outside. Forest kindergartens are a type of nature preschool that takes place entirely outdoors, often allowing the children’s interests and curiosity to lead the day’s activities and inform the curriculum.

“The continued growth of these programs suggests that more parents are looking for forms of early childhood education in which nature facilitates children’s learning and development,” said Emilian Geczi, the Natural Start Alliance’s Director. “I think parents increasingly appreciate how the ever-changing environment and the many colors, textures, and sounds of nature foster discovery, collaboration, and the imagination.”

The survey found that, on average across all programs, students spent three-quarters of the school day outside. Almost half of the preschools and kindergartens offered full-day programs. The vast majority of programs reported using self-developed or emergent curricula, consistent with a general preference for child-directed and open-ended activities in many nature-based early childhood education settings.

The survey results also showed that some student populations, especially ethnic and racial minorities, were underrepresented in the nature-based programs. For example, only 3% of students in nature preschools and forest kindergartens were reported to be African American and 7% to be Hispanic. In comparison, the latest U.S. Census found that 15% of children under 5 were African American and 25% were Hispanic. The survey found similar underrepresentation of students with special needs and dual language learners.

“Clearly, the field needs to be much more intentional about planning, promoting, and running inclusive programs. The Natural Start Alliance is making this a major focus of its efforts,” said Geczi. The Natural Start Alliance organizes an annual national conference for nature-based early childhood educators and supports the work of the Council of Nature and Forest Preschools, a group focused on advancing the field. The theme of the 2017 Nature-Based Preschool Conference, held in Seattle, was equity and cultural responsiveness.

The other associations that participated in conducting the national survey were the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools, the Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association, and the Washington Area Nature Preschools Association.

“Children have an innate sense of curiosity and are drawn to the natural world,” Gessler said. “Fostering that curiosity prepares a child for lifelong learning and lays the foundation to face a constantly evolving world.”

“Just as important, allowing time and space for children to have meaningful interactions with nature helps them develop a respect and appreciation for the environment,” Gessler said.

The survey was sent in the summer of 2017 to 261 schools representing the combined membership lists of the four associations. The survey received a 47% response rate. Six surveys were undeliverable.

You can read the full survey results at

About the survey authors:

The Natural Start Alliance is a national coalition of educators, researchers, and parents who help young children connect with nature and care for the environment. Natural Start is a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Contact: Emilian Geczi, Natural Start Alliance Director,, 847-835-6834,

The Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools is a non-profit organization that provides services, support and inspiration to early childhood professionals to advance the field of nature-based early childhood education and encourage life-long appreciation for our natural world. Contact: Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director,

The Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association is a professional collaborative that promotes, supports and enhances nature-based early childhood education. Contact: Megan Gessler, Founder and President,,

The Washington Area Nature Preschools Association is a regional collaborative developed to support nature-based and outdoor early childhood education and teachers while working to meet the goals of connection, professional development, resource sharing, community participation, research, and improving preschool education. Contact: Kit Harrington, Founder and Director; Kendall Becherer, Co-Director,, 206-616-5261,


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.