It is a daunting task to justify the value of nature-based learning despite the enormous body of research to substantiate it. When stacked up against other early childhood education (ECE) programs, how does nature-based learning measure up? Is it really as valuable as other ECE programs?
Challenging Educational Norms | Since establishing The Nature Preschool in 2010, we have set out to prove just how meaningful nature-based learning can be. We devote ourselves to helping children build relationships and respect for each other AND the natural world. We buck against developmentally inappropriate practices for early learners (no worksheets, rote memorization and confinement behind desks!). We insist that learning for every child is authentic, that is, a series of unique learning experiences informed and led by that child’s own skills, interests and ideas.
Children guide learning in a culture where question-asking, outdoor exploration and idea sharing is embraced. Children are assessed in an individual, non-standardized way based on their own individual progress, not in comparison to others. Children connect with the natural world through unstructured outdoor play. Though our approach aligns with well-documented best practices, it is seldom a reality in typical ECE programs.
Many people believe that a true child-led education like this can’t or doesn’t really exist. Or if it does, it can’t possibly be sanctioned by licensing. It sounds too good to be true. As the founding director, I am here to say that it does exist at The Nature Preschool. We strive every day to make it better and better.
Our belief is that children are wonder-filled beings with their own ideas. In our program, teachers are thoughtful guides in the process of learning. Children are capable of making decisions about learning and play without incessant adult interference or constant narration. Children learn through risk-taking, sensory investigation and trial and error. Teachers ensure the children’s safety and model positive attitudes and empathy. We embrace the emergent curriculum that Mother Nature provides. Just as research indicates, we too find that meaningful learning is rooted in experiential, child-led play by which children solve problems, make discoveries, invent and work together.
Given our fervor and passion surrounding child-led learning, we are on a mission to validate the role of nature-based curriculum, not only in The Nature Preschool, but in all ECE programs.
The NAEYC Journey | In 2011 we began the rigorous process to obtain national accreditation through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). NAEYC is internationally respected for its high standards and ethical codes for early learners and ECE practitioners. We pondered “how do we earn this honor without sacrificing The Nature Preschool’s identity?” The intense accreditation process required holding a magnifying lens up to our relatively new preschool. Self-reflection and extensive, honest evaluation of our practices ensued over the next three years.
Ten different aspects of our school were evaluated internally. Some of the ten standards evaluated include Leadership, Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment. In total, there were over four hundred criterion by which we had to provide physical evidence to prove our compliance.
The preschool staff held many meetings to digest NAEYC standards and criteria. We had to analyze and define what each meant for our nature preschool. We reflected upon procedures, policies and practices. Improvement plans followed parent interviews, family and staff surveys. From minor tweaks to major policy clarifications, we faced them head on. Though tedious, the process forced us to define what’s best for teachers, families and our students and act on it accordingly.
To NAEYC’s credit, accreditation does not dictate what programs should teach. There is no one right formula. It is about proving how teaching occurs in ways that are most beneficial for students, families and staff. The accreditation did not restrict our identity in the least. In fact, it validated many of our approaches including writing our own curriculum, outdoor exploration and unstructured play! Finally we were ready. We submitted our materials for candidacy and waited for our official site visit.
In March 2014, we learned the NAEYC assessor would arrive. During her visit she observed three mixed-age preschool classes for one hour each. (Imagine her surprise hiking our snowy trails in high heels!) She scrutinized our program and classroom portfolios, both overflowing with evidence of each criterion. She left with her poker face. We anxiously waited. In May we were overjoyed to learn that we earned NAEYC accreditation!
There is a small handful of NAEYC accredited nature preschools in the United States. We are the only nature preschool in Maryland with such an honor. With this distinction comes validation that nature-based learning doesn’t sacrifice foundational skills that other preschools offer. In fact, a nature-based approach exemplifies best practices for attaining such skills. The added bonus: a foundation for lasting respect and appreciation for the natural world.