The Future of Outdoor Pre-School

This fall, when students from St. Anne’s-Belfield Pre-School program came across an abandoned bird nest during a walk, it led to some questions: What kind of bird had lived there? Why did he or she leave? What was the nest made of? Can we try to make a nest? It was exactly the type of student-led inquiry the School was aiming for when we switched to an outdoor learning model for the 2020-21 school year.

Pre-School Program Director Kathy Carpenter says educators are recognizing more and more the importance of play and opportunities for children to spend time outdoors. Outdoor learning has been shown to inspire curiosity and creativity in children, strengthen motor skills, and foster more independence and resilience. Over the years, St. Anne’s-Belfield has been moving towards a model of teaching that embraces this type of learning. Two years ago, we built a Natural Playground (which includes real logs to climb on and a mud kitchen), and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, administrators decided to create a new outdoor learning environment for Pre-School students, which features open-air cottages surrounding a meadow, 16 learning stations and walking trails.

But just because students aren’t in a traditional classroom this year doesn’t mean St. Anne’s-Belfield has abandoned its traditional academic focus areas.

“We have very specific curricular goals, and academics are still very much the core of what we do,” Carpenter says. “The faculty are leading the children, guiding them and facilitating, but they are also taking advantage of what’s out there naturally.”

For science, that may mean learning about a toad hiding at the base of a nearby tree or about chlorophyll that make the plants surrounding their outdoor classroom green. For math, that means counting, sorting or graphing natural materials. As for that bird nest, students worked collaboratively to create their own, and later when they read a story about a nest, they compared the one in the story to the one they’d found. 

Outdoor learning not only provides more opportunities for sensory experiences, problem solving and engaging in teamwork, but it also focuses on one of the most important parts of the curriculum for our younger students: social emotional skills. Through these types of activities, students work on taking turns, learn to recognize their own emotions and the emotions of others, and learn how to use their words to solve problems on their own. According to Stacey Gearhart, the School’s director of admissions for Pre-School and kindergarten, these are concepts that are important to prospective parents.

“Parents are so pleased and grateful that we want their kids outdoors,” she says. “And I always tell them that outdoor learning does not stop when children get to kindergarten. The science in kindergarten is also nature-based, plus they have two recesses and physical education.”

Both Carpenter and Gearheart say outdoor learning will stick around, even after COVID-19.

“Once we get through all the limitations of the pandemic, I think you’ll see the Pre-School faculty leading the charge of how we can incorporate these concepts all the way, K-12,” Gearhart says.


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