I am fortunate that the parents and teachers who choose my preschool take a broad view of kindergarten readiness. They accept that a child-centered, play based curriculum will have less singular emphasis on letter identification and more emphasis on developing the whole child. But parents new to a nature or forest school concept, or teachers and administrators wishing to include more nature-based play in their early childhood programs, may need more information about their academic benefit.
Both kindergarten teachers and academic research agree that self-regulation and executive functioning play key roles in a child’s successful transition to kindergarten. A child’s social-emotional skill – ability to express wants and needs, respond appropriately to adults and other children, enthusiasm for learning, persistence, and ability to cope with frustration – is highly correlated with academic success in kindergarten and in later grades.
The NAEYC’s position statement on kindergarten readiness maintains that “school readiness must be flexibly and broadly defined.” To account for “physical, cognitive, social, and emotional competence as well as positive attitudes toward learning,” teachers and parents must help children develop in many different areas. This broad definition of school readiness across developmental domains is helpful in considering how nature and forest preschools prepare children for more formal schooling. As with any play-based program, nature-based programs place strong emphasis on the social emotional domain.
Unstructured play helps children learn negotiation, problem-solving, invention, and collaboration. All of these skills were in evidence together last year Wildwood Nature School when the children invented the “lava game.” The game began with a group of children jumping from tree stump to tree stump. When they missed a stump, they fell in the lava and had to take a jump in the pool (a nearby patch of grass) to cool off before returning to jumping. A girl watched them, but as she never played any games where any type of “losing” was involved, she did not join in. Instead, she stationed herself on the patch of grass and declared that she was the “lifeguard.” The children included her in their game by waiting to be rescued by the lifeguard before returning to jump around the stumps. When the girl declared herself the “lifeguard,” she invented a new position and negotiated with the other children to accept her role. In return, the other children showed flexibility and a willingness to collaborate with others to change the structure of their game.
Nature schools also give children the ability to respect and discern different aspects of nature and the impact of man-made and natural events on nature. When searching for animal homes, wondering about where animals go when it gets cold, or considering how changes people make to a habitat will affect the animals who live there, the children practice taking another’s perspective. They learn to respect others’ space and gain the self-control necessary to quietly watch a deer feeding on grass or a woodpecker searching for bugs at the base of a tree.
Because the forest environment is not entirely predictable, children develop flexibility of thinking as they adapt to the changing environment. When we encounter a fallen tree across our hiking trail, some children elect to crawl under the branch, some jump over it and others balance walk across it. It is in these choices about risk-taking that the social/emotional domain dovetails with the physical domain. Each child builds confidence while climbing trees, building structures and overcoming obstacles at their own pace.
Lately, the children in my school like to run up and down a hill on our property. One girl spent a few days just watching the other children from the safety of the bottom of the hill. She has now decided to join them, but only by walking part way up the hill and then running down a short section. I have no doubt that, as her confidence grows with each new attempt, she will work her way up to the top of the hill when she is ready to do so.
These gross motor skills also require a level of cognitive growth. Any risk taking requires the ability to assess the situation and make decisions about the best way to proceed. Children also test engineering concepts through building ramps, fairy houses and leantos and practice math concepts while sorting leaves, sequencing rocks by size or arranging pine cones in patterns.
While science and math naturally tie in with forest schools, early literacy feels like more of a challenge. However, reading requires more than phonics and letters. According to the National Early Literacy Panel, oral language, print awareness and a positive attitude toward books and reading are also strong predictors of reading success. At Wildwood Nature School, we do have an indoor component to the program, which allows us to keep books dry and engage in more traditional letter activities.
We also bring literacy outside, building letters with sticks and going on scavenger hunts to find letters “hidden” in the shape of leaves and branches. We use guidebooks to identify the flora and fauna we see and to make plans, like choosing plants for a butterfly garden. As we discuss our plans and observations, the children build new vocabulary about science and nature. Children use their new vocabulary and early literacy skills as they record their observations and experimental results and keep nature journals in a real world application of writing.
I have never felt that parents or teachers need to make a choice between a nature preschool and an academic focus. The skills that children practice in their forest play go beyond basic reading and math to build skills across developmental domains that will help them be successful in kindergarten and later in life.
Lonigan, Christopher, et al. Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, National Institute for Literacy, 2009. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/documents/NELPSummary.pdf
NAEYC, Where We Stand on School Readiness, 2009. https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/Readiness.pdf
Rimm-Kaufman, Sara and Lia Sandilos, School Transition and School Readiness: An Outcome of Early Childhood Development, Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, 2017. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/school-readiness/according-experts/school-transition-and-school-readiness-outcome-early-childhood
Weidel-Lubinski, Monica and Amanda McMickle, Naturally Ready for Kindergarten Webinar, Produced by Natural Start Alliance, 2017. http://naturalstart.org/bright-ideas/getting-nature-preschoolers-ready-kindergarten