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Inclusion in Nature Preschools

Nature schools in the United States tend to be filled with white, upper class kids who will eventually matriculate to mainstream kindergartens. Due to various costs and issues of predictability, challenging the status quo is difficult. While Wildwood Nature School is generally more racially and culturally diverse than the city of Portland -- and certainly the Forest Park neighborhoods surrounding the school -- inclusion of differently abled children remains a challenge. When I taught in public elementary schools, inclusion was a valued part of my classroom, so one of my goals while attending the World of Wonder conference was to seek programs and advice on inclusion in nature preschools.

Benefits of Inclusion

Inclusion benefits everyone. Over three decades of research shows that inclusion with typically developing peers allows children with disabilities to acquire social emotional gains faster and at a higher level than children in separate programs. Researchers theorize that children in inclusive settings are exposed to a much broader range of social-emotional competence have more models to emulate and interact with than children in self-contained settings. The same theory accounts for developing stronger language skills, particularly when peers are given specific tools, such as sign language, for communication. These improved language and social skills, in turn, aid in the acquisition of new cognitive skills. A 28 year longitudinal study found that children with autism are able to generalize (apply information to new situations) better in inclusive settings. All of these advantages persist from preschool into the elementary years.

​Inclusion also benefits typically developing peers lucky enough to have differently abled children in their classrooms and teachers to support them. Research shows that all children learn to better navigate relationships, particularly how to initiate interactions, negotiate sharing and develop perspective of another person’s needs and abilities. Evidence also suggests that modeling behavior or academic skills for other students enhances a child’s own understanding of those skills, particularly if they need to adapt their description or adjust their communication style to help another child understand.

Challenges to Inclusion in Nature Schools

One of the biggest advantages of nature preschools is that they expose children to healthy risks. Managed risk (as opposed to a hazard) fuels growth. Vygotsky’s theory that growth depends upon a “zone of proximal development” is in play as children experiment with climbing higher in trees, balancing farther along logs or building structures with sticks and stones. In outdoor schools, risk comes in the form of height, speed, use of tools, natural elements, such as a creek or other moving water, rough and tumble play with gross motor emphasis and the need to navigate without getting lost. Unfortunately, children with special needs do not always have access to this type of managed risk.

However, those exact risks and benefits are the very reason why inclusion can be challenging in nature schools. For half of each day, our program takes place in public forest where we do not have control over the environment. Children need to navigate trails and possibly uneven terrain. Another challenge is the weather. For children who have sensory processing difficulty, the unpredictability of the elements can make it difficult to be outside in the rain or even to be okay with mud. Because the classroom is not “designed,” but encountered, it makes it difficult for children and teachers to do predictable advance planning.

Strategies for Inclusion in Nature Preschools

At the conference, I did learn some strategies for overcoming some of these barriers. For children with sensory issues, something as simple as a blanket may aid their interactions in natural environments. Allowing a child to sit on a soft blanket spread on the ground gives the child the opportunity to engage with grass, dirt, mud, rocks and crunchy leaves on their own terms and on their own time table. The child is not in direct contact with elements unless they choose to be, and different items can be placed – one at a time – on the blanket for the child to explore in a less threatening manner.

In some cases, all-terrain strollers can be used instead of wheelchairs to allow children with mobility issues to navigate trails. Of course, technology costs money, and since nature preschools are usually not publicly funded entities, parents or the school need to find funding for such devices. Depending on the situation, an extra teacher may also be required, which also necessitates more funding.

Cultivating a “Buddy” Program

Another solution was piloted by two Chicago area preschools last year. The nature preschool at the Chicago Botanic Gardens partnered with the special needs class from Green Bay Early Childhood Center, a publicly funded program in Highland Park, Illinois. Children were bused from the Green Bay School to the Botanic Gardens once a month to experience a nature preschool setting.

Prior to the first visit, the teachers met to pair children from their two programs as “buddies” for the visits and to plan activities that would be appropriate for both groups of children. The visits proved successful for both programs as a way for more children to experience nature-based programs and for all children to experience interacting and communicating with each other. The teachers hope to expand their program this coming year to increase the number of visits this school year. However, as with all-terrain strollers, the cost and logistics of transportation remains an issue.

I left the conference with some new ideas for including all children in nature schools, even if some of the challenges still remain. I believe strongly in the benefits of inclusion for all children, and in the benefits of nature schools. We, as an early childhood profession owe it to children, to find a way to bring those benefits to everyone.


First Steps to Preschool Inclusion: How to Jumpstart Your Programwide Plan by Sarika S. Gupta, Ph.D., William R. Henninger, IV, Ph.D., & Megan E. Vinh, Ph.D. Brookes Publishing | | 1-800-638-3775 © 2014 | All rights reserved

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