Can outdoor preschools and farm-to-preschool programs help make our children healthier or are they just the latest trend?
An urban farm preschool took first place this year at an international contest that focuses on innovative ideas in architecture, interior design, industrial design and urban planning. The idea is that children learn through experience, using their senses, active play and physical involvement. The winning team’s design replaces the traditional classroom with outdoor learning to foster a positive connection and understanding of the environment. This is especially important for urban children, whose interactions with food and animals are often limited to the zoo and the grocery store. Children who grow up in large cities are less attuned to the outdoors, where their food is coming from and how their choices affect the environment. In areas that aren’t close to farms, outdoor preschools are held in forests, on beaches and in other outdoor areas.
Outdoor preschools, while new to the U.S., have been around for a while in some countries. The University of Norway started its own outdoor preschool a decade ago, called Living Learning. In Germany, there are more than 500 year-round outdoor schools called Waldkindergartens or “forest kindergartens.” In Swedish outdoor preschools, children are taught outdoors almost exclusively.
The idea has relatively recently taken off in U.S. cities. In the Seattle area alone, the idea has grown wildly in popularity. At Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle students spend four hours outside every day, rain or shine. At the All Friends Nature School in San Diego, preschoolers often learn on the beach. The North American Association for Environmental Education created a map of nature-based preschool providers to serve as a resource for parents and educators. The list has grown from 20 schools in 2008 to almost 100 preschools. These schools spend a portion or the entire day outdoors and believe in play-based learning to create a deeper connection and appreciation of the environment.
Research has shown that recess and movement in the classroom helps kids to perform better academically. It makes sense that outdoor learning could do the same. It’s no secret that childhood obesity rates have increased over the past few generations. The prevalence of obesity in preschool aged children has declined recently, but still remains too high. Outdoor learning lets children move about as they learn, helping to increase physical activity and likely their ability to focus. Learning to plant fruit and vegetables, identify different bugs and birds, and learn traditional lessons while in the outdoors also helps to develop environmentally friendly behaviors at a young age. Another study also found that children’s environmental education has a positive influence on adult knowledge and household behavior.
An alternative to outdoor preschools are Farm to Pre-school programs. These programs focus more on access to local, healthy foods in traditional school settings. Program components can include the following: sourcing local foods in school snacks and meals; promoting and increasing access to local foods for providers and families; offering nutrition and/or garden-based curricula; school gardening; in-class food preparation and taste testing; field trips to farms, farmers’ markets and community gardens; parent workshops; implementing preschool wellness policies which address Farm to Preschool principles; and influencing policies at the local, state or national level. A form of the program is already present in 12 states in the U.S. An evaluation of the farm-to-school program that was published last month concluded that teacher training, infrastructure, and parent and other stakeholder support determined the success of the program goals. This type of program may be more feasible in states with winter temperatures that would not allow for safe outdoor play 100% of the time.
Although the majority of outdoor schools are private right now, continued growth, demand and research could bring outdoor curricula to public schools. Only time will tell if this is a trend or the future.