When Kayden Perri hears a wolf howl at South Shore Nature Center, he knows it’s time for cleanup.
The 5-year-old stops playing with a chopped woodpile by the forest while his classmates rush to put away their blocks. The wolf's howl signals it's time "to go do cool stuff," he said.
Kayden is not at summer camp. He and his peers attend a preschool, where Mother Nature is the lead educator. Nature preschools have more than doubled in the past five years across the United States, boosted in popularity by the pandemic, said Christy Merrick with the Natural Start Alliance, a group that promotes environmental education. In 2017, the organization estimated there were 275 nature preschools, which ballooned to 680 this year. New York saw a 20% increase in the programs to 36 from 2019 to 2021, Merrick said.
Outdoor classes, mostly
Little Peepers Forest Preschool in East Islip is one of at least three nature-based preschools on Long Island where classes are held almost entirely outdoors, rain or shine, and even during snowfall. Here, they play and learn what's traditionally taught in early childhood education, exploring science, art, music, math and language in the outdoors. They head indoors only during dangerous weather — for instance when winds exceed 20 mph or thunderstorms roll in.
Little Peepers, named after the small but loud frog, was the first of its kind in Suffolk County, said Peter Walsh, the education director for Seatuck Environmental Association, a conservation advocacy nonprofit that runs the school.
The preschool has slowly expanded since it opened eight years ago, and now has 25 students — its largest year yet. A new class was added during the pandemic to accommodate student growth, Walsh said.
“We saw a broader reach of families reaching out to our program,” he told Newsday. “The COVID pandemic definitely introduced us to families who otherwise would not have considered a program like ours.”
Kristen Perri of Bayport said she enrolled her son Kayden at Little Peepers in 2021. Kayden's heart issues prohibited him from joining a traditional, indoor preschool, and she wanted to keep him safe from coronavirus exposure. Although Kayden joined preschool a year later than planned, Perri said “he’s learned faster than I imagined” and hasn’t struggled to catch up.
Not limited by walls
A perk of having an expansive outdoor “classroom” is that the children’s play won’t be limited by walls, Walsh said. Their imaginations face no limits.
“What we find is that their language is richer because their visual cues are richer,” Walsh said. “Their pattern recognitions are deeper.”
Students of Kimberly Uresk, a Little Peepers teacher, play, discuss the weather, take attendance and tackle their daily lesson. On a recent winter day, Ivy Lanza, 3, mastered a balance beam made of a fallen tree and jumped over holes. Kayden and his classmate Miles Lewandowski, 5, lugged around a wagon of wood they chopped. When discussing the day’s weather, instead of peeking outside the window, they experienced the blustery day, as the wind ripped through their learning space. As the nine students discussed the day’s lesson plan on ponds, they paused as the area’s resident deer family strolled by. Later, the students trekked to the pond where they caught stickleback fish.
Emerging research on nature-based schooling shows "that nature has a positive effect on children’s development,” including on memory and attention, said Cassandra D'Accordo, a clinical psychologist at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville. However, she said such schools tend to be "in very affluent areas where this research [is conducted] and where kids have access to nature and nature play spaces." Kids who have access to nature-based preschools likely have access to other resources that can benefit them. This can “bias the data,” she added.
Hitting the 'big three'
Costs for nature preschools on Long Island, which run the traditional academic year, range from $2,500 to $6,500 per year. At Little Peepers, a three-day, two-and-a-half-hour program costs $3,780 and $5,625 for five days.
Preschools that operate 3 or fewer hours and aren't affiliated with public school districts don't require oversight by the state Education Department. Nature schools spokespersons said the schools independently determine education standards. At Little Peeper's, Walsh said, the curriculum is created internally by merging state guidance with guidelines encouraged by nature schools.
Lisa Minicozzi, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at Adelphi University in Garden City, said outdoor preschools hit all the marks of what early childhood educators call the "big three": physical, cognitive and social-emotional learning domains. Learning through the lens of nature checks all the boxes. Plus, it can be fun, she said.
"Going through a pandemic, many parents are really reconsidering where the joy is in learning," she said. "We find it should be a joyful experience."
Minicozzi said preschools on Long Island, indoor and outdoor alike, are highly privatized. She encouraged parents to ask specific questions about the education and qualifications of the teachers and to weigh whether the program is a right fit for their children. She encouraged early childhood educators to create professional guidelines to help the Long Island programs grow.
'Wanting to do stuff outside'
At the Center For Science Teaching and Learning in Rockville Centre, which sits on an 11-acre campus and has 15 students, director Ray Ann Havasy said they teach 3 and 4-year-olds to be naturally curious.
“The more curious a child is, the more learning is intrinsic to them,” Havasy said. “The outdoors open them up so much to just soaking in learning than sitting in a room.”
Nesting bald eagles live on the property, which drive the kids wild when they soar overhead. Last year, an eagle flew past the class with a freshly caught eel, inspiring conversations about nature, Havasy said.
While Erica Corlito of Malverne and her family are naturally outdoorsy, the pandemic was an impetus to enroll their son Wescott, 4, at the science center’s preschool.
“With the pandemic and everything, at that point, an outdoor school or a school that was primarily outdoors was really one of the only things that we were considering,” she said. “It really helped make the decision for us.”
Leading a nature preschool has long been a dream for teacher Allison Grief, who is the childhood programs manager for the Suffolk County Farm & Education Center through the Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Inspired by Little Peepers, she opened the Little Farmer’s Preschool in Yaphank four years ago, which has grown to 50 students. She credits the growth to the pandemic. The preschool has a waitlist of 10 students, Grief said.
“I think people also started wanting to do stuff outside,” she said. “A lot of parents didn’t want to send their children into a classroom."
Other programs on Long Island offer nature-based programs for children, but without a curriculum. The Aishling Forest School in Brookhaven complements traditional schooling and offers enrichment programs targeting home-schooled students, founder Jordan Manfredi said. The program runs on a seasonal basis and can accommodate up to 50 children ages 3 to 9.
“Our mission at forest school is to preserve the magic of childhood,” she said. “Nature is the teacher.”
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