By Mary Zentara, Forest Preschool Director & Co-Teacher
Article from the winter edition of our “Field Marks” newsletter
When you take a walk at North Branch Nature Center, you’re bound to hear bird calls and the burble of our namesake river. But just as importantly, your ears will also be delighted by murmurs of wonder and shrieks of excitement — the audible field marks of children playing and learning together outdoors.
Across our country, and even here in Vermont, today’s children spend drastically less time outside than their parents or grandparents did. Decades of research (by pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, journalist Richard Louv, and others) shows that this trend away from nature has a significant negative impact on childhood development. As part of an effort to bring early childhood learning back into nature, NBNC Education Director Amy Butler looked to the Forest Kindergartens established in Germany in the early 1990s. In 2012, our Forest Preschool (FPS) program was launched. Initially held one morning each week, the program grew each year.
In the fall of 2017, Forest Preschool blossomed into a full-time, licensed preschool program, STARS-recognized and prequalified to receive Act 166 Universal Preschool funds. Children ages 3.5 to 6 play with joy and vigor from September to June in the rain, snow, and mud, under the bright sun, and with the wind on their faces. And thanks to capital campaign donors, we have a cozy indoor classroom to support our outdoor learning.
In this first year as a full-time program, children developed resilience, confidence, empathy, and a love of nature and our place in it. Dressed in appropriate clothing for all seasons and weather, children embarked on a learning journey that took them to outer space, milkweed land, mud kitchen, outdoor science labs, back in time to the dinosaur age, and to the far reaches of the earth. They did so on space ships, pirate ships, and thundering hooves, traveling as pirates, scientists, baby birds, dinosaurs, and vast herds of speeding animals of all stripes.
At Forest Preschool, Vermont’s first preschool embedded within a nature center, healthy risk-taking is central to the curriculum, and our outdoor classroom is steeped in rich vocabulary, deep imaginative play, numbers, and direct (often mud-caked) learning that engages all the senses. We hold ample space for young learners to explore and experiment, allowing them to take the lead in their own learning. Students are supported in being who they are and feeling the full range of their human emotions in the company of a caring learning community.
In Forest Preschool, we cultivate lifelong learners, encouraging a sense of self, community, and place in the context of nature. Some, like Richard Louv, say this is each child’s birthright. The Forest Preschool teachers are thrilled to have begun yet another year of chemistry in the mud kitchen, “hydraulic jack hammering” in the forest, building and insulating animal homes using sticks and white pine needles, flights to outer space on our maple log spaceship, rich conversations about life cycles, and countless other opportunities to play, learn, and grow together outdoors.