Free-range kids: Nature-based preschools growing in the Duluth area
Eleven hammocks draped in mosquito netting are arranged around a large basswood in a quiet Duluth forest.
One day in July each held a small child wrapped cocoon-like, clutching “stuffies” or blankets. The sleeping children lay under filtered sunlight and a canopy of greenery. Far enough away from the civilization of Arrowhead Road, only birds and a breeze made any audible sounds during an hour of rest.
The hammocks are where the kids who attend the Secret Forest Playschool nap each day. The school occupies space both inside Eastridge Community Church and behind it, using a base camp, garden, winding creek, trails and thick stands of trees as components to a large outdoor classroom. The kids ages 3-6 spend their days engaged in self-directed, unstructured outdoor playtime in the creek, exploring trails, building forts, gardening and creating art or science projects from things found in nature.
“These kids are physical: They wrestle, run and jump. There are no walls and ceilings, and because of that it’s freedom,” said teacher Meghan Morrow, who started the first school of this type in Duluth in 2012. “At this age it’s hard to confine them and put out rules and expectations. That comes soon enough.”
In an era of ever-present technology and increasing academic rigor for young kids, the teaching style at Secret Forest and other nature-based preschools in the Duluth area — a category that continues to grow — seems almost quaint. But proponents of nature play say it builds resiliency, stamina and creativity, self-regulation and social skills and emotional stability and good health; all part of a solid school-readiness foundation for kindergarten and beyond. It’s a concept that’s long been popular in Scandinavia.
Kids aren’t spending enough time outside, developing independently, said Laura Whittaker, owner and teacher of the Wind Ridge Schoolhouse on Observation Hill.
“This is a direct response to try to meet those needs,” she said. “To offer them a childhood, and delay that academic intensity.”
Her small class still learns the alphabet and the names of plants and flowers, for example, but that’s not the point.
“Nature play is so connected to brain development,” Whittaker said. “They learn how to learn by being outside.”
Research points to several benefits that come from outdoor learning, said Julie Athman Ernst, a professor with the University of Minnesota Duluth and director of its Master of Environmental Education Program.
She said some studies show improved fine and gross motor skills, lowered anxiety levels, a higher self-concept and improved language skills. Her research involves whether kids develop resiliency through such programs.
“We have a concern that with early childhood — the way we are parenting and educating — of not having kids who can bounce back in the face of hardship and the face of adversity,” Ernst said.
The resiliency, says Whittaker, comes from the risk-taking involved in being outdoors. It’s a risk emotionally and physically to try something new, like climbing a tree. Socially, risk comes from engaging other kids in imaginative play, she said. And kids learn from their successes and failures in these areas, “which may be one of the most important pieces children learn from nature play,” she said.
She cited the following example from her students: Some kids struggle to climb trees and also to drop down from them. They watch a student who does it well, and then they practice.
“They come to the same spot for weeks, even months. They understand that, OK, I have to wait for my body to grow, to get stronger,” Whittaker said.
When they can do it, “the whole group celebrates with them and you can see how this particular moment is going to impact how they approach struggle in the future,” she said. “And this can happen for every child.”
At the Hartley Nature Preschool — the biggest in the area with 92 kids enrolled this fall — the kids have the 600-plus acres of Hartley Park to explore. (An outdoor playscape was destroyed in the recent windstorm.) The school cites puddle jumping as an activity. Teacher Kaitlin Erpestad explained that it requires balance and teaches kids to take turns. The activity leads to questions from them, like where does the water come from and where does it go?
“There are all these things to talk about at their level, with what’s going on in the natural world,” she said.
At April Hepokoski’s Little Barnyard Preschool situated on five acres in Esko, kids practice animal husbandry, along with more typical outdoor activities. They hold baby bunnies the day they are born, feed goats and chickens and help raise them. They mix batter for cornbread and cook eggs they collected themselves. It’s teaching sustainability, and it’s also child-led learning, Hepokoski said.
“If one group is fascinated with the hatching of ducklings, we focus on that,” she said.
Outdoor landscapes are ever-changing, and that forces kids to pay attention, and use all of their senses, Morrow said. Through outdoor play, they develop compassion and empathy as they help each other, and make many decisions on their own.
“There are moments I sit back and am tense when I watch them play,” she said, but she only intervenes if she must. “Most times they are very capable. That’s hard to remember as an adult.”
At Wind Ridge, kids spent much of their time on the Superior Hiking Trail, found steps away from the schoolhouse.
One day in July the class spent the morning exploring the trail and picking juneberries and raspberries; they know which berries can be eaten and which will make them sick. The kids roasted imaginary marshmallows on sticks and ran an imaginary ice cream shop. Whittaker, who often sings to get the attention of the kids, scouted an area off-trail before setting them loose, warning this day of slippery rocks. At one point several children climbed a downed tree and pretended it was a fire engine. One child, appearing to need quiet time, went to the edge of the group to examine some berries alone. Another laid down on a rock and acted out the hatching of an eaglet.
“Isn’t it amazing,” said assistant teacher Carley Cohen, “to see them run without a care in the world, through all obstacles?”
‘No bad weather’
Duluth has a handful of the 176 preschools in the country that are part of the Natural Start Alliance, a coalition of educators, parents and organizations dedicated to connecting kids to nature and care for the environment.
The growth of such programming in the city is a “no-brainer,” outdoor teachers say.
“Every person in Duluth lives within a quarter mile of a trail of some kind,” Erpestad said, pointing also to easy access to Lake Superior and the city’s 42 streams. “We want children and their families to use all of those spaces and to feel comfortable using them.”
All of these schools have indoor quarters for reading, resting, eating and gathering. But the majority of each session is spent outside, even in cold weather, subscribing to the “no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing” motto, with the exception of lightning. So intent is Morrow on maintaining her outdoor philosophy, she installed a composting toilet near her class’s base camp for emergencies. Sleeping outdoors, however, is for temperatures between 50 degrees and 80 degrees. The winter allows for snowshoes, campfires and storytelling. This type of preschool makes for hardy kids, its teachers say. In the winter, on very cold days, it can feel as if they are the only ones outdoors, Whittaker said.
Accessible to all?
Most of the area programs are small — 12 kids or less — with deep wait lists. Like most preschools — one notable exception is the federally-funded Head Start — they charge tuition. They vary in whether they are open year-round and offer half or whole day care, or more than twice a week. Cost and access can be a barrier to this type of program, Ernst said.
“How do we make this available across a range of backgrounds?” she asked.
A program in Seattle worked with the city park system to open preschools across the city, she said, and by eliminating the cost of facilities was able to offer a lower-cost program. The same could be explored in Duluth, she said, noting that one could argue the kids who can’t afford such a program could most benefit from it.
“What we have learned is how critical those early years are,” Ernst said. “It’s almost, in a way, scary the way it sets the course for life. What happens in those years matters.”
The Hartley Nature Preschool received a local grant to do outreach with non-nature-based preschools, talking to educators about how outdoor play can be incorporated and barriers can be removed.
“We’re encouraging other programs to take lessons outdoors,” Erpestad said, “and to bring natural elements in. The idea is that nature play isn’t exclusive to somewhere like Hartley.”
One message of a group that’s formed — the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative — is that schools shouldn’t take away recess or outdoor play as punishment for bad behavior, she said, noting “it’s especially (kids who misbehave) who need time outdoors moving their bodies.”
Morrow says there aren’t enough programs of this type in the area to fill the demand, with families being turned away for lack of space.
‘She is so ready’
Dori Streit’s daughter, Ari, was a cautious child at age 3 when she started attending the Wind Ridge Schoolhouse. But Streit has seen Ari, age 5, “transform” she said, and become brave and confident in her own body.
“Yesterday she rode a two-wheel bike like it was nothing,” Streit said. “She climbs trees and jumps out of trees. She comes home and she’s got bruises and scrapes, but it’s evidence she’s using her body. You have to have those struggles to master those skills.”
Nathan Kesti’s 4-year-old daughter, Cedar, attends the Secret Forest school. She has developed a sense of adventure, but in a safe way, he said, and has become inquisitive, noticing the world around her.
“We’ll be on a walk and she will say, ‘let’s lie down and listen,’” he said. “She isn’t going to be afraid of nature. She will respect it and cherish it.”
Esko resident Zada Dunaiski likes that her son’s school, the Little Barnyard Preschool, is based on problem-solving techniques versus memorization, for example.
“He requires a lot of physical activity,” she said, and he comes home “wiped out” and dirty from school — a good thing, in her eyes.
The kinds of activities the school offers reduce stress and increase her son’s attention span, while teaching real-life skills, she said.
Ari’s ability to focus and bring creativity into play will help her “think outside the box” as she ages, said Streit, noting Ari will attend Lowell Elementary School’s new Spanish immersion program this fall.
“She is so ready for kindergarten,” Streit said.
Nature-based preschools, kindergartens and programs with outdoor components in the Duluth area:
- Wind Ridge Schoolhouse, Duluth
- Hartley Nature Preschool, Duluth
- Secret Forest Playschool, Duluth
- Little Barnyard Preschool, Esko
- Spirit of the Lake Community School’s Kinderfarm, Duluth
- Lester Park Elementary’s ECFE outdoor classroom, Duluth
- St. James Catholic School, Duluth, kindergarten enrichment with an outdoor focus
- Wandering Roots Nature School will open this fall in Proctor and has spots available
- A nature-based kindergarten program will open in fall 2017 in Duluth, led by Amber Marsolek
- Both Montessori schools in Duluth are building nature playscapes
For more information on local nature-based education, see the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative on Facebook.