SHARON — It’s a windy weekday morning, and a few chickens were poking around Moose Hill Farm, a bucolic former sheep and dairy farm with meadows, wetlands, and a white farmhouse.
In the fall, the chickens will be joined by 30 young children who will be part of a growing trend in early childhood education: nature preschools.
Children at The Cooperative Nature School at The Trustees Moose Hill Farm will spend half the time outside, in all kinds of weather, and will be encouraged to explore the reservation’s landscape, visit the animals, and walk the trails.
“They have the opportunity to learn so much more about themselves and each other and the world,” said Abigail Marsters, executive director of The Sharon Cooperative School, which has been educating preschool-age children for the past 42 years.
When children spend time outside, Marsters said, their cognitive development improves, they learn how to interact with the natural world and each other, they gain independence, and they build their problem-solving skills.
The Cooperative Nature School is a new venture for Marsters, who will also head the program.
Nature preschools and forest kindergartens are becoming more popular with educators and parents, said Ellen Doris, lead faculty for nature-based programs in the education department at Antioch University New England.
The trend, which has long been a part of early education in Europe, appeals to parents who are looking to give their children an appreciation of the outdoors, and those who want to move away from testing-driven curricula and toward a child-led, play-based teaching style.
“I think a lot of people are looking for balance that they’re not finding in preschool and kindergarten programs, given the direction we’ve gone in the last 20 years, which is earlier focus on academics, more testing in schools, even in the early grades,” Doris said.
These schools have a range of approaches, with varying time spent outside, Doris said.
The increased interest in nature-based education is reflected in Antioch University New England’s expanded offerings for early childhood educators.
Antioch began a one-day conference on nature-based learning, called In Bloom, in 2012. The following year, the university began a certificate program in nature-based early childhood education. Graduate students at Antioch can also choose to focus on nature-based learning. Students come from all over the country to participate, Doris said.
Nature preschools aren’t new to the Boston suburbs, and have been in operation at the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, and at Apple Orchard School in Brookline, among others.
Meghan Graham, who was checking out Moose Hill Farm on a recent visit with her young daughter, said she liked the idea that children who spend more time outside develop a greater love for the environment.
“All the research is showing how beneficial it is for kids to be outside more,” said Graham, a board member at The Sharon Cooperative School.
Establishing a nature preschool in Sharon has been Marsters’ dream for the last 11 years, but finding the right setting was difficult.
Efforts to establish a nature school with other partners, such as in private homes, at churches, temples, or alone, didn’t work out.
But The Trustees’ property at Moose Hill Farm seems ideal, Marsters said. The first floor of an old farmhouse there, which in recent years served as office space, will be used for classrooms.
In addition to 30 children age 3 years and 9 months through age 5, the school will have four educators, a naturalist, and a variety of animals.
For The Trustees, the prospect of engaging young children in the outdoors aligns nicely with the organization’s mission, said Vidya Tikku, its general manager overseeing Moose Hill Farm.
“We want to build the next generation of stewards to preserve the land.” Tikku said.
To prepare for opening the school, Marsters talked with directors at other nature preschools and studied academic research. She wanted to learn from others while also bringing her cooperative approach to the new school, one in which the teachers will take their cues from the children’s interests.
“Putting our own brand on it was important to us,” she said.
The school’s hours were set with working parents in mind: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. A summer session will be available beginning in 2019. Tuition is $1,290 per month.
Since the children will be outside everyday unless conditions are dangerous, the school will provide all-weather coats and boots to be kept and cleaned on-site, Marsters said.
“The goal is to be outside as much as we can,” she said.
They’ll visit the farm’s garden, trails, and compost site, and there will be spaces outside to read, learn, and explore.
The Trustees are preparing the property for the preschool, deleading the building and bringing it up to code, but Marsters said that she does not want the landscape too manicured and that children should explore the world as it is.
“Everything to them is fascinating,” she said. “They’re totally energized on their own.”Jill Terreri Ramos can be reached at email@example.com.