Outdoors become classroom for many preschoolers

Thursday, May 12, 2016
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A program for children is thinking outside the box. In fact, the whole point is being outside.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you."

Many early childhood education experts believe we are failing our children by not giving them enough time outdoors. So a few preschools in the area have designed their entire curriculum around an outdoor classroom.

Whether it is renaming a salamander or improving dexterity by rock climbing on actual rocks, the Schuylkill Center's mission is to nurture early learning through nature, all year round in nearly every weather condition. That means unless it is downright dangerous, the outdoors are the classroom.

"There's no bad weather, there's only bad clothing," preschool manager Shannon Dryden said.

Although the program does have inside classrooms for lunch and as an option for free time play, students under five spend most of the day and school year learning outside.

"He's not deterred by any sort of weather because he knows he can pull on rain pants or pull on snow pants," mother Christie Foley said.

Dryden says time outside for young children promotes critical thinking, team building skills and self-confidence.

"They're going to be more willing to take those risks socially, whether it be in the board room later or something like that because they know they're own abilities," Dryden said.

"I don't want her to worry about her dress or whether or not her hair is discombobulated, but just that she is having fun and enjoying herself," father Roy Wade said.

Traditional "academic" lessons for that age are incorporated in a less conventional way by learning reading and writing skills through their outdoor adventures.

"We do journaling throughout the year, in terms of drawing pictures, and then encourage the child to make that connection between spoken word and print by developing their kid writing skills," Dryden said.

A similar pilot program is in place at the Friends School Haverford Forest's Edge.

Teacher Meredith Woods says less than ideal weather is usually just a deterrent for adults, not children, and their natural surroundings is where they thrive.

"Children are sitting at desks all the time and they need to move, this is how they naturally think so to have this free atmosphere, it makes children feel comfortable," Woods said.

Woods says research also indicates children have less sick days.

Both programs have had such a success this year, they are expanding the size and perhaps even the age range for next year's program.

Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park plans to open an outdoor preschool within the next few years.

The playground, located at 3500 Reservoir Drive, hopes to have half of its class come from the surrounding North Philadelphia neighborhoods.

The playground already has an outdoor learning space, Nature Explore, created with the help of the U.S. Forest Service.

Action News learned about the upcoming school and the current exploration space from Smith Playground executive director Meg Wise.


Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool

Friends School Haverford Forest's Edge

Smith Memorial Playground Nature Explore