“Go outside and play!” was an admonition we heard when, as children, we were making nuisances of ourselves to our mothers.
I actually did play outside most of the time, and it’s likely that many other baby boomers did as well.
The weeping willow tree in Grandma Elizabeth’s backyard with its soft, rounded, drooping branches hanging nearly to the ground offered many make-believe opportunities for me.
Roller skating at the school playground, bicycling around our small town, and creating “play homes” in outdoor work sheds took up much of my typical childhood day.
My own children had the good fortune of living in the country with wide-open spaces to roam and explore.
I worry about today’s children and the impact of electronics that keep them inside and glued to screens instead of jumping into piles of leaves, rolling in the snow, or lying in the grass looking Heavenward trying to find shapes in the sky’s cloud formations.
But I recently learned of something that gives me hope.
My friend Ellen has a grandson who attends a nature preschool here in Virginia. I hadn’t known such a program existed, but they’re a popular and growing segment of early childhood education. In 2017, there were an estimated 275 programs in the United States. By 2020, that number had doubled.
Such schools might be referred to as: place-based school, nature-based preschool, forest kindergarten, forest school, nature kindergarten, or outdoor preschool. But collectively they can be called “nature preschools.”
The young children learn what regular preschools teach, but a majority of each day is spent outside. And not just on “nice” days. Indeed, the four states with the highest number of nature preschools include Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota. None of these states can boast of outstandingly great weather during much of the school year term.
Kit Harrington, co-director of Fiddleheads Forest School at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens in Seattle, Washington, offers this observation: “More than seeking to simply memorize facts and impart information, we ask questions, we wonder, we observe. And what we learn, what we develop in spending as much time as we do with children and with the earth, is a deep and meaningful connection to place.”
Yes, let’s go outside and play.