The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A New Kind of Preschool

on November 5, 2016

A while ago I read a NY times article about outdoor preschools. Although I think such schools are going a bit overboard with their insistence on having almost all activities outdoors, I appreciate their understanding of the need young children have to explore the world around them and to experiment using their own imagination and skills. Today I will describe significant parts of the article and expand it with my own ideas of what a preschool should do.

 In the Times article the activities of several preschools in different parts of the country were described. Although each school was unique, all of them held almost all their teaching and learning in the natural world outdoors, and all of them gave children great freedom to select their activities and materials and use them as they pleased. Nevertheless, the school I admired most was the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Massachusetts because it had a basic structure with children feeding farm animals and growing vegetables as well as exploring the wildlife habitat. All the other schools seemed to operate solely on what existed naturally in the environment or what was happening with the weather.

Although most of the schools also had some indoor facilities, they did not use them except when the weather was bad. In fact, no indoor activities were described in the article. One school, Fiddleheads Forest School in the state of Washington takes children outside rain or shine; they all have water proof outfits to wear when needed.

As for their activities, Fiddlehead children spend most of their time “carting around rocks in wheelbarrows, playing at being (sword-less) pirates, examining trees split by lightning, digging in wood-chip piles to make child-size ‘nests’, finding an unknown seed and dubbing it a ‘Nothing Berry,’ and running up and down hills.”

At any of the outdoor schools a teacher might decide to take a group of children to a particular place for learning something special, such as identifying flowers.  None of the schools seemed to have a set curriculum. It was up to the teachers to decide what would be best for students at any particular time or place.

As might be expected, all the schools identified were private ones, situated in neighborhoods where parents were well educated, and for the most part, prosperous.

The comments of some critics also appeared in the article, but they weren’t very critical. The critics, who were university professors, felt that outdoor  preschools were a reaction to the testing and early teaching of academic skills currently imposed on children in schools, and that they would fade away when education policy becomes more reasonable.

I, too, found little to criticize. I wholeheartedly approve of outdoor experiences for young children and the opportunities to explore their needs and interests in their own way. But, at the same time I think that important indoor activities were being ignored—or, at least, not mentioned in the article.  Young children also need music, art, poetry, role playing and, most of all, experience with books. I don’t mean they should be taught reading in preschool, but that they need access to many picture books and to be read to regularly.

Also, as I hinted above in describing the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, having some structure is important for young children.  In all homes there is a structure of when, where, and how to do such things as brushing your teeth and going to bed that gives children a sense of structure in time, place, activities, and  behavior. A preschool should expand children’s structure by teaching them how to behave in various places and situations and how to treat other children and adults.  Long before they are held to any math or reading standards, a good school teaches children the fundamentals of living in a structured world.

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