Goodbye, Traditional Montessori, Hello, Outdoor Preschool

Montessori schools have been popular for the past decade or so, and they are characterized by student-led learning. Wikipedia describes them as “an educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori and characterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.”

These have been desirable among Generation X parents, who may have grown up with a strict curriculum and a set standard of what a child should learn at ages 3, 4, and 5. Many children don’t follow natural “normative” development for many reasons — they may be delayed, they may have neuro-sensory issues, or perhaps they just learn differently, something that traditional modes of education has not really considered until recently.

(Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

But now, Seattle is leading the pack and starting a new wave of preschool education in the United States. It’s outdoor preschool, and it consists of exactly what it sounds like, allowing each student to literally and figuratively create their own path to learning, adventure, and success. While the idea is new to the United States, the idea and the introduction of learning in this manner is not new at all. It’s a Scandinavian model that has been around for half a century.

At Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle, school is in session all year long — rain or shine, warm or cold. Seattle’s rainy climate may give some parents pause, but proponents of the new trend in education say the changing weather is part of the beauty of the system. Tiny Trees CEO Andrew Jay says the weather should not be a detriment to learning, according to the Seattle Times.

“It’s a Scandinavian model, and it’s been around for 50 years. We know that in much colder climates — Finland, Denmark, Norway — you go north of the Arctic Circle, you have outdoor preschools.”

For two years, Jay has been working with other outdoor-proponent educators to get the program up and running. In September, they launched six outdoor classrooms with 160 students included. Jay said it’s not uncommon for parents to have questions about weather, bathroom facilities, and stranger danger, since the schooling is held at an outdoor park. But these situations have been addressed with rain gear, portable toilet facilities, policies, and watchful staff.

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 16: A mother plays with her three-year-old daughter on a playground on September 16, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is currently debating the introduction of a nation-wide home child care subsidy (Betreuungsgeld), which would provide parents of one to three-year-old children the option of receiving EUR 150 (196.91 USD) a month to care for the child at home rather than sending him or her to a daycare center. Critics argue it would prevent the integration of children of recent immigrants into German society. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Jay says academics are often questioned as well as the efficacy of an outdoor program as opposed to traditional book and desk classrooms. He says Tiny Trees Preschool emphasizes “sensory vocabulary” where children can see, hear, touch, and interact with objects and ideas instead of simply listening to a teacher talk about them or reading them from a book. This is appealing to preschoolers, who are at a peak age of natural curiosity and a desire to interact with things around them.

“We get questions about academics a lot. We can read a book about nature and the out-of-doors, and a lot of the things in that book are in this park. Whereas when you’re in an indoor space, sometimes that book can feel a little more abstract.”

Children are able to explore nature, inspect insects, feel different textures, see different colors of the earth, and have up close and personal lessons in meteorology and topography, all under the watchful eye of specially trained staff. Students are able to learn at their own pace and can concentrate on things that really interest them; for some, that may be birds and animal life, and for others, the sensory aspect of dirt versus rock versus grass may hold appeal. There’s plenty of freedom for exercise too, a major concern as the United States battles childhood obesity at record percentages.

Another benefit of this preschool is that it costs half of what traditional preschools do, and it operates on a sliding scale, meaning students who come from families with incomes under a certain amount are able to attend with financial help.

Fortunately, Seattle isn’t the only place where outdoor preschool is available, as there are similar preschools popping up from coast to coast. Although few and far between, if they are found to be successful places of learning, there’s no doubt many more programs based on nature will take flight.

Would you consider sending your child to an outdoor preschool? Share your thoughts.

[Featured Image by Adam Berry/Getty Images]