Bugs, not blackboards: nature-based preschools gain popularity

There’s no need for a desk full of pencils, notebooks and glue sticks: This fall, a handful of students will call the local woods and nature trails "school."

Think trees, not ABCs, at nature-based schools

WTOP's Rachel Nania | November 30, -0001 12:00 am

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BETHESDA, Md. — There’s no need for a desk full of pencils, notebooks and glue sticks: This fall, some young students will be going back to school in the woods and trails that wind through Montgomery County’s Cabin John Regional Park.

Nature Explorers, a new preschool program from Montgomery Parks, is different from traditional preschools. It’s nature-based, meaning most of the learning takes place outside the classroom.  

“The goal of the program is to have kids outside playing, exploring, imagining — just having fun outside in nature, which, unfortunately, a lot of kids that age don’t get to do anymore,” said Rebecca Wadler, a naturalist at Locust Grove Nature Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Nature provides so many opportunities for young children, vital for their development — emotional, social, academic.”

The 3-to-5-year-old kids enrolled in Nature Explorers will have the opportunity to build forts made from sticks, walk wooded trails to look at wildlife, and catch fish and frogs down by the stream at Locust Grove.

Wadler says it’s all about being a kid and doing what kids do best: learning through play.

“I bet a lot of your memories from your childhood stemmed from being outside. It’s not necessarily that trip to Disney World that sticks out in your mind; it’s those times in your backyard, finding things and collecting things and learning outside,” she said.

Nature-based schools are not a new concept — countries like Germany and Austria have been teaching this way for ages — but they are becoming more common in the U.S., in an era when outdoor play is on the decline.

For two days each week, the young students at Nature Explorers won’t hang their things in a cubby and report to a desk. Learning to care for the center’s snakes and turtles will trump the ABCs. And their play won’t be limited to a static steel structure for 30 minutes at a time.

“They have the opportunity to change and move and explore and use all their senses,” Wadler said. “It’s all going to be exploring the woods around us. Just turning over rocks and seeing what’s out there.”

Wadler says she has always wanted to start a nature preschool, and hopes that this fall’s program (offered in two five-week sessions: Sept. 13 to Oct. 13 and Oct. 18 to Nov. 17) will be a success so she can teach more throughout the year.

Montgomery Parks offers a similar 12-week school at Black Hill Nature Center in Boyds, Maryland, and other organizations, such as the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Irvine Nature Center, offer nature-based learning programs.

With the start of the new school year, Wadler says she’s looking forward to unleashing that continuous curiosity and sense of adventure that little ones have when they’re not contained by four walls.  

“When you go outside and you give them some toilet paper binoculars and they look for robins, and they have this amazing, ‘Oh my gosh it’s a robin!’ I love seeing that excitement; I love that new sense of discovery and wonder, and turning over new things and seeing things for the first time. It’s exciting.”

Enrollment for Nature Explorers opened Aug. 15. Registration is available on Active Montgomery; the cost is $275 a session.

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