by Melissa Blake

Some people say outdoor preschool is a no-brainer. “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls,” says Erin Kenny, founder of Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten on Vashon Island, Washington. Ithaca Forest Preschool, begun in 2013, took away the walls and added a very special culture.

There are many outdoor or “forest” preschool and kindergartens around the world, and the number is growing as people realize just how beneficial outside time is for young children.

Free play in nature improves physical health, creativity, problem-solving, focus, self-discipline, cooperation, flexibility, self-awareness, and happiness (Burdette, Hillary L,, M.D., M.S.: and Robert C. Whitaker, M.D., M.P.H “Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation and Affect.” © 2005 American Medical Association).

Preschoolers have incredible imaginations, and for them the line between reality and fantasy is very blurry. In fact, children up to about age 5 have a dominant brain wave pattern like the one adults use when they dream (Jensen, Eric, Enriching the Brain. Jossey-Bass, 2006). Cognitive scientists say imaginative play with few or no props (like what happens outdoors) builds a skill called “executive function,” which is a better predictor of school success than IQ (from an NPR report titled “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”, February 20, 2008). And researcher Louise Chawla has found that significant childhood experiences of nature, coupled with adult mentoring and role-modeling lead to later environmental behavior (Chawla, Louise. “Learning to Love the Natural World Enough to Protect it,” in Barn nr. 2 2006: 57-58. © 2006 Norsk Senter for Barneforskning). A forest preschool typically reaps all these benefits and more by combining imaginative free play in nature, mentored nature study, social skills development, and community bonding activities like singing, stories, and celebrations. It is likely to emphasize child-centered and child-led studies and use a curriculum based on Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio-Emilia, or another model.

Ithaca Forest Preschool uses the curriculum described in the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown. The goals of this model include not just nature connection but connection to self, others, and ancestral knowledge and skills. The belief is that these are all connections we yearn for as part of our original human blueprint: this model, then, hopes to grow “whole people.”

Ithaca Forest Preschool instructors are trained in a technique called “coyote mentoring” which involves sparking curiosity by asking good questions, role modeling excitement for learning, and invisibly guiding participants through an experience that is meant to feel spontaneous and outside of time but is actually rich with intentionality and culture.

Cultural elements that show up in the school day include traditional songs and stories: values like respect, kindness, teamwork, and peace; and ancestral skills like fire-making, wild plant harvesting, and primitive crafts. The resulting culture of connection is a hallmark of the Ithaca Forest Preschool and its parent organization, Primitive Pursuits.

What does the culture of connection look like at Ithaca Forest Preschool? These children make very personal connections with nature, on their own terms and in their own time. Playing hide and seek in the bushes, they are truly immersed in nature! Catching small critters engages all their senses, and teaches empathy and compassion: after the first worm is “loved to death,” and with adult mentoring and role modeling , the children learn to be more gentle and careful with worms, toads, crayfish, plants, and other living things. They then begin reminding each other how to be good caretakers. Harvesting ingredients and then sharing dandelion cookies, pine needle tea, garlic mustard pesto, or stinging nettle sauté builds meaningful connections with the plants. Eventually, everywhere the children look they see their plant friends. This helps them feel like they belong on the landscape. Their imaginative play fills with plants and animals, predators and prey, fairies and little woodland people.

Connection with their bodies and awareness of their strengths results from struggling determinedly up a steep muddy slope or balancing on a challenging log. Ancestral knowledge and skills come to life while knocking apples out of a tree with throwing sticks, watching an instructor light a fire with a bow drill, and then cooking the apples over the fire.

Connection with others takes many forms, including helping them on the slopes and logs, playing cooperatively, and singing and drumming together. At the end of each day a hoop made of grapevine and birch bark is passed around the circle and everyone is invited to say “thank you” to something – or someone – in the environment. This ritual of gratitude and connection as become a cherished routine and highlight of the day. And afterward, children carry the culture home, teaching their parents about plants and giving thanks at the family dinner table.

My son, a student at Ithaca Forest Preschool, loves to pretend he is a baby animal. Today at school he clambered up a muddy slope on all fours, informing me he was a black bear cub. Yesterday at home he made a pile of pillows and blankets on the couch and burrowed into and burrowed into it (I, of course, was assigned the role of Mama Worm). If he has two sticks, he is more likely to pretend to make fire than to fire pretend guns. His bonds with his classmates, teachers,and the Ithaca Forest Preschool site itself are strong. He is growing up in a culture of connection.

Melissa Blake is a an instructor at Ithaca Forest Preschool. Ithaca Forest Preschool operates Monday through Friday mornings during the school year at 4-H Acres on Lower Creek Road, Ithaca. This article first appeared in the Ithaca Child in 2014.