Learning Under the Trees–Returning to nature in the classroom
On a misty morning, eight preschoolers with bouncing backpacks and mud-covered rain boots emerged from the 205-acre woods at Pratt Nature Center in New Milford, excitedly discussing a caterpillar and giggling as explosive jewelweed seed pods along the trail offered a quick lesson in seed dispersal. At the base of a towering white pine, they gathered for a reading of Llama Llama Red Pajama. Their school day, spent entirely outdoors, is a seemingly new educational trend surging in popularity around the country, but it is not a novice concept after all.
“This is not new. This is just returning back to roots,” expresses Diane Swanson, executive director of the center, where the Peter Pratt Nature School opened in September. The program, held outside year round—except in inclement weather when children retreat to a yurt classroom—is state-licensed. Only one other preschool in Connecticut holds such distinction: Westbrook Nature School in West Redding.
An emphasis on nature-based education has been prompted by heightened concerns plaguing childhood: overdependence on technology, sedentary lifestyles, reduced time outdoors, and increased emotional disorders. “We are creating anxious children and try to fix the problem when they’re in high school; but the damage is done in the early years,” relates Swanson, who serves on the Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Substance Abuse.
Antidotes to anxiety include self-confidence, resilience, problem-solving, compassion, communication skills, and the ability to assess risks—lessons readily offered in nature. Swanson explains how splashing in a river teaches suction and saturation, crafting boats out of leaves and sticks enforces sink or float concepts, burdock reveals how Velcro works, black walnuts link children to the Native Americans who used them for ink, while building dams teaches not only water movement, but connects them to the nearby beavers working on similar projects.
Comparable educational methods are practiced at Washington Montessori, a pre-k-8 school in New Preston where the building design encourages freedom of movement and connects classrooms to outdoor spaces. Students exit onto patios and into flower and vegetable gardens that they grow and maintain; from the preschoolers planting seeds, to the middle schoolers turning compost and building wood structures.
This kind of education is “an essential part of child development,” declares Carney O’Brien, head of school at Washington Montessori. “This is not an add on, but an integral part, the foundation of what we are and do.”
Students at Litchfield Montessori in Northfield also tend gardens and explore microenvironments—streams, woodlands, ponds, swamps, and diverse wildlife—flourishing in the adjacent Humaston Brook State Park.
“This works in conjunction with more and more research showing that children today are suffering because they are being increasingly cut off from the natural environment, while children who are afforded time in nature and exercise are more creative and productive in the classroom,” states head of school Cara Johnson.
Students learn not only about the natural environment and its curriculum connection, Johnson explains, but also valuable interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership, conflict management, and to appreciate the impact of community service while maintaining park trails.
Nora Hulton, a master conservationist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and a middle school science teacher at Washington Montessori, testifies to such benefits. Whether her students acquire practical skills like animal tracking, identifying invasive plant species, monitoring temperatures and water runoff in an outdoor classroom, or practicing geometry by comparing the height of trees to their shadows, they also foster a sense of stewardship.
“If children don’t learn to appreciate local sustainability, they will not appreciate global sustainability,” Hulton cautions. “Here they learn that they can make a difference and they like that responsibility.”