A preschool class connects with nature

While some kindergarten and preschool teachers have turned to iPads in the classroom others advocate for a different kind of immersive learning, outdoor classrooms. On an island outside of Seattle, Washington, one preschool class is reconnecting with the natural world in a nontraditional setting.


While some kindergarten and preschool teachers have turned to iPads in the classroom, others advocate for a different kind of immersive learning -- outdoor classrooms.

On an island outside of Seattle, Washington, one preschool class is reconnecting with the natural world in a nontraditional setting.

Our environmental reporting partner, EarthFix, takes us outside to the first forest kindergarten in the United States.

Hi, Victoria.

So good to see you this morning.

[ Chuckles ]

Love you.

Are you kids ready to walk in?

You look ready to walk in.

Squirrel Camp?

♪ Squirrel Camp ♪ Squirrel Camp ♪ Heading up to Squirrel Camp ♪ Do-do-do-do-do

This might seem like a day at camp, but, actually, this is a school.

It is held completely outdoors.

There's no indoor time for the children.

I'm noticing the color.


Yeah, it's orange.

Erin Kenny is the lead teacher and founder of Cedarsong Nature School...

Lillian noticed it's a different color.

It's orange.

...a preschool with no walls, no desks, and no computers...

I'm flying in a jet!

...where the tree canopy is the ceiling and climbing barefoot is not just allowed, but encouraged.


Hey, look at you, Phoenix.

These kids aren't diving into reading, writing, and arithmetic.

But that doesn't mean they aren't acquiring knowledge.

Anybody else?

These are all great ideas.

Does anybody else have another idea?

Or maybe a decompo-- Maybe the mushrooms can decompose into the ground and then -- and then turned into soil.

There's great learning taking place with young children.

That's exactly right, Dana.

That's how soil is formed.

You're right.

When they're just allowed to explore nature, they're learning all kinds of valuable principles about gravity and texture and shapes and colors and all the things that you might expect to see in a preschool curriculum.

They're just doing it outdoors and naturally at their own pace.

Cedarsong opened in 2006 on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle.

Does anybody have a story they'd like to tell?

I do.


It was the first forest kindergarten in the United States.

Kenny built the school in response to the alarming trend she was seeing -- American children spending less time playing outside.

Elizabeth, you want to get on?

They're stopping the bus for you.

And when kids stay indoors, Kenny says their connection to the natural world withers.

[ Whispering ] See up there?

[ Whispering ] I see it.

Do you see way up there?

[ Whispering ] Yeah.

[ Whispering ] Does anybody want to lie on the ground?

[ Normal voice ] Learning outdoors was one of the best ways to create a positive and intimate bond with the natural world.

But what happens when the weather turns cold and rainy?

Well, we put on a coat if it rains, and we put a -- a fleece if we get cold.

My lips are turning blue, right?

[ Laughs ] The children have no problem with the weather no matter what the weather is.

Once children are appropriately dressed, they can spend many hours in nature with no cares.

Cedarsong parent Tania Zimmer agrees.

I've never really had an issue with them with the weather.

They've never complained about it once.

I think it builds a certain amount of resilience and grit.

Zimmer says her two daughters love going to school outside.

There hasn't been a day where they have not wanted to come to the school or they've left in a bad mood.

Now, a decade after Cedarsong started, the outdoor-school idea is growing.

Similar schools have sprouted across the nation.

In the Greater Seattle metropolitan area alone, there are now more than two dozen outdoor schools.


Hi, hi, hi!

One is the Fiddleheads Forest School nestled among the towering cedar trees of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Does anyone else want to run around the classroom before lunch?

Mena, you want to go, too?

Aria, you want to go, too?

Okay, let's get out some of our energy.

Come on!

[ Speaking indistinctly ]

Teacher Joanna Wright says she noticed an inherent benefit to outdoor preschool.

Yes. You got it.


You got it.

If a child has a lot of energy and needs to run, that's not inherently a problem.

So they're able to get that energy out and come back to a more focused and ready-to-learn state.

♪ Well, I...

Kit Harrington cofounded the school.

She says while interest in outdoor schools has grown, the larger educational system isn't evolving as quickly.

Many states say a school without walls is not a school, and that's why neither Cedarsong nor Fiddleheads are licensed.

There are elements that pertain to building codes, for example, and we don't have any building.

You can't have climbing structures that are more than 6 inches off the ground.

You can't have standing water that's more than 2 inches.

Keep the area free of rodents and other insects, for example, which is a very important part of our curriculum.

It's a very important part of our classroom.

Look at my praying mantis.

Let's see if we can catch some more insects.

A growing body of research shows that outdoor play leads to better behavior and academic performance.

Harrington says they plan to participate in formal research to help build a case for the academic rigor of outdoor schools.

It's the whole ocean of Puget Sound.

For parent Ashley Sampson, it's not about the academics.

For me, I feel like it's more important that my 4-year-old gets the most opportunities to play.

Once they get into school, they don't have as much playtime, and that's sort of gone forever for the rest of their academic lives.

For now, formal academic learning still happens indoors at desks and in front of computers.

But as more students attend school outdoors, who knows how far the idea will spread?