Nature Preschool Background

In rural areas, and historical times, access to nature has not been a problem. Over the last century, with increasing urbanization and “nature deficit disorder”, there have been many changes in stance on outdoor education. In 1914, the socialist political activists Rachel and Margaret McMillan set up an “open-air nursery” but little is known of the details, except for an improvement in child health. In the 1950s, Ella Flautau created forest kindergartens in Denmark. The idea formed gradually as a result of her often spending time with her own and neighbors’ children in a nearby forest, a form of daycare which elicited great interest among the neighborhood parents. The parents formed a group and created an initiative to establish the first Nature Preschool. There is a rich history of Forest Preschools with roots in European models that continued with Swedish “Skogsmulle” schools from the 1950s (Skog – wood, Mulle – a fictional character who stood for stewardship for young children), and Ur och Skur (Rain or Shine) nature schools to Forest Kindergartens of the 1960s Germany. As of 2005 there are approximately 450 nature kindergartens in Germany. Over the last two decades Forest School programs have been increasing in popularity in many Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, many parts of the UK, as well as all throughout North America.

What is a Nature Preschool?

A nature preschool is a type of outdoor education for children between the ages of three and five that is held almost exclusively outdoors. Whatever the weather, children are encouraged to play, explore and learn in a forest or natural environment. The adult supervision is meant to assist rather than lead. Nature preschools are generally composed of a group of 15 to 20 children and at least two staff. An ideal location would be close to residential areas and close to the preferred woodland.

A nature preschool can be described as a classroom “without a ceiling or walls”. The preschool educators and children spend their time outdoors, typically in a forest. A distinctive feature of nature preschools is the emphasis on play with toys that are fashioned out of objects that can be found in nature, rather than commercial toys. Despite these differences, nature preschools are meant to fulfill the same basic purpose as other nurseries, namely, to care for, stimulate, and educate young children.

Children are encouraged to dress for the weather, with waterproof clothes and warm layers, according to the climate. The preschool is held outdoors in all seasons and under most weather conditions, although it is often moved under a covered space in extreme weather, for example during storms. The reason for children moving under a covered space during severe storms is the risk of trees losing limbs. All forest areas following such a storm would then need to be risk-assessed prior to re-entry. Children within Auchlone Nature Kindergarten and Whistlebrae Nature Kindergarten were out in the extreme winters of 2009 and 2010 in temperatures down to −20 degrees but were dressed for the weather.

The location chosen within the forest may vary from day to day; indeed the children themselves are likely to make that choice. However, staff would expect to know the area and to be able to guide decisions in terms of interest, safety, distance, etc.

The Benefits:

Healthier Bodies: Studies show increased frequency of physical exercise and a challenging environment helps to develop motor skills, e.g. navigating uneven terrain. Some research demonstrates less sick days due to open fresh air classrooms.

Healthier Minds: Forest Schools offer an opportunity to be sociable and also to have time alone. Space and resources are naturally available allowing individuals or groups to investigate and problem solve. Forest Schools provide time to just be, where individuals can relax and explore interests. Personal motivation, a willingness to try new tasks and the ability to persist at tasks increases.

Healthier Environment: A nature-based learning experience provides an understanding and appreciation of the natural environment, knowledge of how systems interlink and how we affect our surroundings. By spending time in the environment using it to play and learn effects us at a deep level. It is this connection with nature that opens us up to care more for the environment as adults.

Healthier Future: Many of the skills that develop as a result of spending time at a Forest School are essential life skills that in time will benefit the economy including developing determination to complete tasks, learning to work together as a team and communicating effectively.

The fact that most nature preschools do not provide commercial toys that have a predefined meaning or purpose supports the development of language skills, as children verbally create a common understanding of the objects used as toys in the context of their play. Nature preschools are also generally less noisy than closed rooms, and noise has been shown to be a factor in the stress level of children and daycare professionals.

Playing outside for prolonged periods has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s development, particularly in the areas of balance and agility, but also manual dexterity, physical coordination, tactile sensitivity and depth perception. According to these studies, children who attend nature preschools experience fewer injuries due to accidents and are less likely to injure themselves in a fall. Studies show that a child’s ability to assess risks improves and that spending time in nature improves attention and health. Playing outdoors strengthens the immune system of both children and educators.

When nature preschool children go to primary schools, teachers observe a significant improvement in reading, writing, mathematics, social interactions and many other areas. It has been proven that children who had been to a nature preschool were above average, compared by teachers to those who had not, in all areas of skill tested.

Improved Skills

  • Knowledge and Skills in specific subjects
  • Reading
  • Mathematics
  • Constructive contributions to learning
  • Asking questions and interest in learning
  • Motivation
  • Sports
  • Music
  • Art and creativity
  • Positive social behaviour
  • Concentration
  • Handling writing and painting equipment
Children looking at moss on a tree


Helicopter parenting is becoming more clearly recognized in the culture of fear of today’s risk adverse society. While some parents rush to ‘wrap their children in cotton wool’, others see outdoor play and nature preschool as a way to develop a mature and healthy outlook on life, as well as practical skills and health. Doing this at a young age is hoped to bring lifelong benefits to the child. Most Provincial, urban and community parks note that having a nature preschool at their site expands their mission and furthers their goals of providing nature education to children.

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