Parents might gauge their child’s progress in preschool by how many letters they recognize, which shapes they can draw, or how comfortably they play with peers.
But when Corey Marcotte of Littleton looks back at daughter Evie’s first year of preschool at Good Pickin’ Farm in Westford, success is all about the chickens.
“Chicken coops can be kind of overwhelming,” said Marcotte. “The first day she went in, she was horrified and just wanted to get out of there, especially after a chicken pecked at her foot.”
Evie’s perspective changed in the months that followed. “She went from refusing to enter the coop, to going in if someone was holding her hand, to going in by herself,” said Marcotte. “By springtime, she was holding chickens on her lap. Her teachers were so proud of her. It was a learning and growing experience she never would have received in a different environment.”
This month Evie, now 4, starts her second year at Good Pickin’ Farm’s Acres of Fun preschool, which the state has designated as a nature-based preschool.
The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care defines such preschools as programs in which children spend at least 50 percent of their time outside. To earn licensure, the programs must adhere to the same health and safety regulations as indoor child-care programs.
Although Massachusetts does not provide data on the number of nature-based preschools in the state, there are currently an estimated 800 in the United States, according to a report published by the North American Association for Environmental Education, up more than 200 percent from 2017 and more than 300 percent since 2010. The increase might be one of the few aspects of education that benefited from the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jenna Hull, founder of Community Farm School, a licensed preschool and kindergarten program that opened this year at Clark Farm in Carlisle.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were striving for more outdoor education models,” Hull said. “When the pandemic hit, everyone pivoted to outdoors by necessity, and it became clear to educators that this was something that could work.”
It may not be surprising that semirural suburbs such as Carlisle, Lincoln, and Westford are home to such programs, but in Lynn, Cairn Hill Nature Preschool is bringing the experience to children from a more urban environment as well.
“Our setting is quite different from the many nature preschools in affluent areas,” said Cheryl Dressler, president and cofounder of the school. “We’re surrounded by 70 acres of woodlands, with access to vernal pools and all kinds of animal life, but we are also less than three miles from the center of Lynn. Our mission is to engage a diverse community of learners. Research shows that children of color in urban areas often don’t have access to nature, for a variety of reasons.”
As someone who grew up in Lynn and later became a teacher at Cairn Hill Nature Preschool, Cathy Ventura knows this firsthand. “I was raised in downtown Lynn by a single mom,” Ventura recounted. “The only exposure I had to nature was a little patch of green grass in the backyard. We played on the sidewalks, but we never went for hikes in the woods. It was an unfamiliar setting to me.
“When I first visited Cairn Hill as a prospective staff member, I was amazed. Seeing kids at this age being exposed to bugs, worms, different types of trees, leaves, and mud, and seeing the way it sparked their imagination, struck me as beautiful. Every child deserves the opportunity to explore like this.”
Similar to their non-nature-based counterparts, many of these schools strive to make enrollment as widely accessible as possible, offering full and partial tuition assistance and leveraging state grants to help subsidize costs. Directors expressed the wish to see universal pre-K funding spread from Boston and Cambridge to the outlying communities in the years to come.
The question that most often arises when adults first hear about the concept of nature preschools is how children can be expected to spend time outdoors regardless of the conditions. Nature-based preschools typically have an indoor space where children nap, use the bathroom, and can escape the elements if necessary, but with the majority of their time spent outdoors, discovering the joys of the weather is part of the curriculum.
“All of us love to be outside until it rains, or gets buggy, or is cold, or until we find a tick,” said Hull, at Community Farm School in Carlisle. “Getting children outside in any weather or situation teaches them that they are resilient.”
And that lesson goes beyond acceptance of the occasional rain shower or mosquito bite, pointed out Hull’s colleague Kayla Piskuliyski.
“Teaching kids how to navigate when things aren’t just what they are accustomed to is so important,” said Piskuliyski. “It applies to school, to sports, to human dynamics. How do you face a problem and solve it rather than giving up? The outdoors provides that for children and educators in such a tangible way.”
Like Acres of Fun in Westford, Community Farm School leverages its proximity to an actual working farm for additional learning opportunities. “There’s a misconception that nature preschool means the kids are just playing in the woods all day,” Hull said. “But there’s much more to it than that. Our students help with weeding and planting and caring for the animals. They meet with the farmers and learn about their work.”
At Acres of Fun, structured curriculum includes counting the eggs after collecting them from the chicken coop and composing valentines to the goats on edible paper, which the goats can then devour, said preschool director Jessica Nadworny.
“Outdoor environments are ideal for all different types of families and children, including those who are neurodivergent and might not thrive in a more traditional setting,” said Sarah Besse, executive director of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network, which currently runs programs in Jamaica Plain, Wellesley, Malden, and Milton. But, she emphasized, the children are acquiring the same skills as their peers in more traditional preschools.
“We are fundamentally focused on building community and developing social-emotional skills,” she said. “The frosting on the cake is the environmental education and connection to nature embedded in our programs.”
It’s an opportunity that the state’s expanding universal preschool guidelines will make more accessible to a wider population, Besse said. “We’re looking for ways to locate our program in low-income areas and offer it to families who might otherwise not have access. Next fall we plan to base a program at the Franklin Park Zoo.”
“It’s such a natural fit for preschoolers,” said Gail Ader, executive director of the Cooperative Nature School at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon. “Preschoolers notice the minutiae of the environment and are not destination-focused. If they see something along the trail, they’ll stop and look at it. And they embrace all kinds of weather. Rainy days are their favorite days: There are streams to examine, puddles to wade through, mud and slippery rocks to explore.”
“Outdoor learning is beneficial for all of us — families, children, educators, and the earth itself,” Hull said.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.