Outdoors is the main classroom at Holderness preschool

Special to the Sunday News
August 11. 2012 10:13PM
Children enrolled in the Blue Heron School use repurposed containers to explore the movement of water in a stream at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness. (COURTESY)
HOLDERNESS --- With a picnic table for their headquarters, the kids make their plan. They might start with a little light boulder-jumping, take in the sights from high atop a pine or tackle the more mentally taxing stick piling. Or, they might just sprawl out on a dirt blanket and get lost in a picture book.

Whatever the outcome, the children make these decisions for themselves, rain or shine, wind or snow. It's all in a day's work at the Blue Heron School, a nature preschool at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness.

'A nature preschool is the children are outside, just as much as possible, year-round in all kinds of weather,' said Laura Mammarelli, director and lead teacher at Blue Heron. 'They're dressed for the weather every single day. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.'

The kids start each day outside. And the idea of not being able to do something outside because it's a rainy day? That just doesn't happen.

'We kind of carry on with our plan,' Mammarelli said. 'If there's a plan with a naturalist to go out and talk about rocks, we go. We go on a little hike out, and we go to where the rocks are. We do whatever the (planned) activity is.'

Blue Heron is just one of several nature preschools cropping up around the state - from here in the western part of the state to the Seacoast, and from Nashua all the way up to the North Country.

Sometimes known as an 'all-weather school,' the nature preschool model was popularized in Scandinavia in the late 1960s with the aim of getting kids outside and keeping them there to learn their letters, numbers, science and motor skills, among other things.

'The teachers are there to facilitate what's going on,' Mammarelli said. 'If children are curious and want to turn over a log - I mean, that's kind of a typical thing to happen, but it's really exciting when you're 3. We lift up the log, and we look at what's underneath it, and we talk about carefully putting the log back. They collect worms. They will touch everything. Sometimes they catch things in plastic containers and we study it.'

But always, the activities are kid-generated.

'They're following their interests outside - being physical, sometimes sitting quietly, sometimes running around - and we are there watching them and ready to step in when they ask us to or when we see an opportunity to offer some information or help them take it to the next step.'

The concept is becoming so popular that Antioch University New England in Keene is in the process of developing nature preschool education as a major. David Sobel, senior faculty member in the department of education at AUNE, recently started holding public workshops on the concept of nature preschools and forest kindergartens. Sobel said that from Scandinavia in the 1960s, the idea made its way to the United Kingdom, Germany and Southeast Asia before eventually crossing the Pacific to the U.S. mainland.

'It was becoming so evident that (outdoor preschools) were effective in terms of learning and being healthier and being better places for motor development that some people in the United States started to take note,' Sobel said.

The schools have been around in pockets of the country for decades, but really started becoming popular in the New England only about five years ago, Sobel said.

Though there's not a lot of data available on academic outcomes of nature-based schools, he said, improved physical and emotional well-being as a result of kids learning in nature has been well documented.

Sobel said studies have proven that the concept of keeping kids indoors to keep them healthy is a fallacy. Further, he said, nature preschools and forest kindergartens accomplish all the traditional academic goals - and a lot more.

'I think that the reason parents are interested in it is the 'a lot more,'' he said. 'So, not only is the academic stuff equally as effective, if not more effective, but it's healthier for kids.'

A 1997 study of the Scandinavian schools found 5 percent fewer absences due to sickness in nature preschools compared to traditional schools. And that's continued to play out in nature preschools across the globe, said Marilyn Wyzga who coordinates the NH Children in Nature Coalition, the mission of which is to get children, youths and families outside.

'(Being outside) improves emotional and physical wellbeing,' Wyzga said. 'So we're finding reduced physical and health issues, and improved learning.'

The Scandinavian studies also showed that nature preschool children had better concentration and motor function.

Wyzga explained that if you think about typical learning environments, they are pretty homogeneous and safe in the sense that they are very uniform. But in a nature-based preschool area, kids are walking on uneven ground, things are more varied, they are learning about different textures and surfaces, seeing things up close, and problem-solving - all of which helps develop mental and motor skills, she said.

The Scandinavian study also found that play at more traditional preschools was often interrupted and that structured play on the playground was increasingly the only outdoor activity on which children spent their time. But unstructured play is crucial, Mammarelli said.

'At the science center, we also have some structured time because we have naturalists, and we have a whole curriculum we learn about birds and mammals and lightning and land and the whole water cycle and things like that,' Mammarelli said. 'The unstructured piece is ... being free to collect sticks and build a pile as big as you can or climb up a rock and jump off over and over again - which they do, and that's really essential.'

At preschool age, she said, children are still constructing themselves from their environment - whatever the environment they're in. The goal of the nature preschool is to ensure the natural world is part of who they are.

'We're not heavy handed about, 'Oh such and such is becoming extinct if we don't save it,'' Mammarelli said. 'But we believe that these outdoor experiences are essential for (the children's) development - their physical, emotional and intellectual development.

'And in addition to that, our hope is that when they become adults, because they had this experience, that protecting the environment and caring for the environment will just be a natural thing for them to do.'

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