A class of 4-year-olds will spend next school year learning primarily outdoors in the sun, rain and snow through Durango School District 9-R’s first forest preschool.
The class of 16 students is expected to play and learn outside 90% to 95% of the time, said Libby Culver, the district’s early childhood coordinator.
“Anything we can learn inside, we can learn outside,” Culver said.
For example, students may use waterproof journals to practice writing and drawing outdoors and use their outdoor experiences for inspiration, said Sarah Lemcke, who will teach the class.
Outdoor preschool education is a growing trend across the U.S. and Canada, but it has long been a staple of education in Germany and other European counties, said Emilian Geczi, director of Natural Start, the early childhood initiative of North American Association for Environmental Education.
Learning outside encourages creative forms of play, more physical activity, lower stress and a reduction in attention deficit disorder symptoms, according to research compiled by the Natural Learning Initiative.
It also fosters more enthusiasm for learning because the environment is always changing with the seasons, Geczi said.
“There is always something interesting to observe, to play with and to learn about,” he said.
Lemcke suggested starting the class based on her experiences interning with a forest preschool in Switzerland while she was in college.
She also takes outdoor field trips with her Riverview Elementary preschool students about once a week and has observed the difference it can make among students.
“They are so excited and happy and engaged,” she said.
Lemcke suggested the district offer a forest class because the district didn’t have another large classroom for another preschool class needed to meet demand.
The district has received strong interest from parents who want to enroll their children in the class that will be based at Needham Elementary School, Culver said.
Registration in preschool classes is underway, and students will be selected for the new class through a lottery system, Culver said. Parents will find out if their child was selected for the class at the end of April when the notifications for placement at other preschools are sent out, she said.
Grant funding or donations are expected to help support the new class that will need some specialized materials, Lemcke said.
Students will need warm clothing, binoculars, compasses, wagons to carry materials and rope that instructors will use to build play structures in the forest, she said.
Many Durango parents already work together to provide their young children with outdoor learning experiences through the Free Forest School of Durango, said Katherine Dudley, director and facilitator.
The group, a local chapter of Free Forest School, a nonprofit started in Austin, started almost two years ago in Durango. More than 100 parents have participated in the school’s free gatherings for parents and children from infancy to 6 years old, she said.
Dudley was pleased to see 9-R adopting a similar outdoor education model for young children.
“It gives me just so much faith in our public schools in terms of their values,” she said.
Dudley has seen outdoor lessons develop concentration and focus that she hasn’t observed among young children playing with plastic toys indoors.
Dudley started taking her daughter, Hollis, to gatherings when she was 11 weeks old, and it has enhanced her sensory development and her motor development, she said.
The school is run by volunteer parents who organize gatherings six to eight times a week in the spring and summer months, she said.
Often the gatherings start with story time followed by an optional activity and unstructured play. For example, recently during a gathering of young elementary-aged students, they read a nature-based story about poetry and then students wrote their own poems about what they were experiencing.