CedarSong outdoor preschool(Photo: Karen Olsen, Courtesy of CedarSong)

As I researched future preschools for my toddler son, I was shocked by how "academic" preschool had become since I was a kid. If kindergarten is the new first grade, many preschools have become the new kindergartens, some going so far as to groom kids for entrance into highly-competitive public and private grade schools. It all seemed a bit daunting, especially since my main recollections of preschool were gluing macaroni to construction paper, swinging from monkey bars, and putting my head on the desk for a morning nap.

So you can imagine my surprise -- and delight -- when I recently toured two outdoor preschools in the Seattle area. Approaching the forest where the kids were spending their mornings, I heard their little elfin voices diffusing through the forest, the sound of the pure joy of childhood. Up close, I saw preschoolers free to move through native woods, active as their little bodies longed to be, nibbling on edible plants, running down trails, climbing fallen trees, listening to bird songs, just being kids.

On my recent visits to Cedarsong and the Roots and Wings Nature Preschool, my toddler and I got a first-hand taste of the new and exciting outdoor preschool movement, one that is bucking the trend of pushing academics on younger and younger children.

What is Outdoor Preschool?
In simplest terms, outdoor preschools are those in which students spend the vast majority of their time outside, engaging in lots of physical activity while learning about the natural world. Kids venture out despite the elements. In fact, with the exception of hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunder and lightning storms, school is typically held during any type of weather -- rain, shine, cold, or snow -- provided the roads are safe for driving.
Curricula can vary widely from school to school. Some, like Cedarsong, located in Vashon, Wash., follow the forest kindergarten model that originated in Northern Europe: children are exclusively outdoors, fully immersed in native woods without a predetermined agenda for the day. Others, such as Mother Earth in Portland, OR, feature a farm as well as a forest, and children gain experience in how to tend a vegetable patch and care for goats and chickens. On my tour of Roots and Wings in Duvall, Wash., which weaves primitive survival skills into its classes, I saw kids as young as four learning to safely shoot a (not very sharp) arrow from a handmade bow constructed of vine maple branches and baling twine.

While outdoor preschoolers spend the bulk of their time outside, many schools include yurts, primitive huts, or saunas for kids who want a brief break from the weather.

What about Academics?
You won't see outdoor preschoolers sitting quietly at desks, learning their letters and numbers, reading books, or practicing holding a pencil. But that didn't seem to bother the parents I interviewed who sent their children to outdoor preschools in Washington, Oregon and Texas.

The main reason: parents don't seem to have trouble incorporating a little academic instruction into their daily family routine.

"At home we read a lot, visit the library, and create a strong focus and appreciation for books," says Lani Ladbon, who travels by ferry from Tacoma, Wash. to bring her daughter to Vashon Island to attend Cedarsong. "We play with phonics flash cards while on the ferry, dinosaur flash cards during potty time, and work with the alphabet and numbers here and there."

Laura Wells of Cedar Park, Texas, who sends her son to The Butterfly Garden, also finds creative ways to weave academics into her son's day.

"I have been teaching my preschooler letters and basic reading at home, but mostly in a casual child-led kind of way," says Wells. "Math is a passion of mine and is a part of our daily lives, whether riding in the car or at the grocery store."

These approaches seem to be typical among the primarily college-educated parents who send their children to outdoor preschools.

Some even find that the fresh air, physical activity, and time in nature seem to settle their children in ways that make book learning easier.

"There's no learning of letters happening at Mother Earth," says Karyn Warner, a Portland-based mom. "But oddly enough, that hasn't mattered. My daughter comes home from school ready to focus on a task, and most often will choose an art project or work on her reading."

The Real Lessons of Outdoor Preschool: Beyond Letters and Numbers
It's not that outdoor preschoolers aren't learning anything on their daily adventures in the woods. In fact, ample education is occurring naturally throughout the day: which plants are edible, the names of the local trees, how to recognize different bird songs, how to treat a nettle sting with forest medicine, how to care for farm animals.

But the lessons go deeper. As children are taught to carefully observe their environment -- through first-hand experience and probing questions from teachers -- they're also developing a critical understanding of the natural sciences that they'd never get from a lecture or book. More importantly, as they venture outside for hours at a time with a close-knit peer-group and carefully guided instruction, they're building the social skills, self-reliance, confidence, cooperation, and problem-solving skills that are critical for success in the kindergarten classroom -- and beyond.