On a warm day earlier this summer, six preschool students tramped across a field in Boulder’s Sombrero Marsh with their moms, navigated across a small stream running stronger than expected with the help of rocks and adult arms and finally settled in a shady spot surrounded by trees.
Thorne Nature Experience instructor Jen Anderson led the parent-and-child nature play group in fashioning woodland creatures from pine cones, ribbons, pipe cleaners and fabric, then encouraged the children to explore and build their creatures homes from sticks and rocks.
A couple stayed safe on mom’s lap, while the rest wandered. One boy led a group to scramble up a dirt incline, offering a girl a hand as she contemplated how to get past a tree branch. Another girl protested she couldn’t make the climb, but then made it to the top with lots of encouragement from Anderson. After exploring, they shared their creatures and listened to a nature-themed story.
Thorne’s summer parent-and-child nature play experiences are a preview of the environmental education nonprofit’s new licensed nature preschool, which is set to open in the fall as the area’s first preschool held “almost entirely outdoors.”
A room at the East Boulder Recreation Center will serve as a backup in case of dangerous weather conditions. Otherwise, students will spend most of their time by the South Boulder Creek off the nearby Bobolink Trail.
‘Nature is our classroom’
“The idea is that nature is our classroom,” said Erin Saunders, Thorne’s education programs director and a mom of a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. “It’s really important for young children to have that connection with nature, and it’s happening less and less. Playing outside is sort of in our DNA. There’s a peacefulness and excitement in nature. It offers so much for children to just be curious about. Ultimately, it’s what I want for my kids.”
Ashild Sudmann-Day, a participant in the play group, said she would seriously consider enrolling her 4-year-old son if he wasn’t already enrolled in a Montessori preschool.
“I’m from Norway, and I miss this,” she said. “I’m so used to being outside all the time. It’s so important to start young for them to feel like being outside in nature is just part of life. We need our next generation to be respectful of nature.”
Common in Europe, nature, or forest, schools have had a slow start in the United States — mainly, supporters say, because of the restrictive regulations for early childhood programs.
Saunders said licensing and finding a location were the biggest hurdles to starting Thorne’s program.
Now, Colorado’s early childhood licensing system doesn’t allow outside-only forest kindergarten options because the system is based on licensing a building. The state’s rules mean the programs either are limited to four children or require a parent to attend along with the child.
About a year ago, Chalkbeat.org reported that the state agreed to try a pilot with two Denver programs, Worldmind Nature Immersion School and The Nursery School, to see if it was possible to create a child care license for outdoor preschools.
Worldmind founder Megan Patterson said she tried unsuccessfully to get her program licensed for several years before working with the state through the pilot, which went from August to February. During that time, Worldmind held classes for 3- to 6-year-olds in Denver City Park, using the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as shelter for bad weather.
She collected data on everything from the weather to encounters with people and animals to potty accidents, with kids and teachers retreating to the museum about a half dozen times for an entire class. They also took 30-minute snack and storytime breaks when it was “really cold,” she said.
The pilot, she said, established that some sort of emergency shelter is needed, as are classes specifically for nature preschool leaders and teachers to complete the licensing requirements.
The pilot also proved, she said, “that kids can be safe in an outdoor setting all year.”
“I really believe in this model,” she said. “Kids just make huge gains in their confidence and self-esteem. It’s not just being outside by yourself, but being outside with a whole group of kids and working through challenges.”
Starting in August, she said, Worldmind is participating in a second state pilot for a full-day program after hearing feedback from working parents that a half day doesn’t work — and working parents are needed to make the program sustainable. The plan is to continue using the Denver Museum as an emergency shelter, as well as for a classroom where students will spend an hour-and-a-half eating lunch and having quiet time.
Having a building is crucial
Along with a full-day option, she said, another factor in making nature preschools viable is a low-cost building. Working with libraries, museums, churches or other community organizations allows organizers to avoid the high cost of buying or renting a commercial space that’s rarely used.
“As we look at licensing for the whole state, I’m just really excited,” she said. “I really want this model to spread.”
Though a licensing path is possible in the next couple of years, Boulder’s Thorne decided not to wait and instead worked within the current system by using a building as a home base, Saunders said.
The original plan was to use Thorne’s main building at Sombrero Marsh as the preschool’s home. But Boulder Valley School District, which owns the land, decided not to allow the use.
Thorne then found an underused classroom already set up for preschoolers at the East Boulder Recreation Center. The location, Saunders said, will allow students to take daily field trips to the outdoor learning site off the Bobolink Trail and occasionally other spots around Boulder. To access the main outdoor site, Thorne applied for and received an off-trail permit from the city.
“It’s been a long, hard journey to get licensed,” Saunders said.
While Thorne, which was founded in 1954, had the resources to create the program and work through the challenges, she said, it would be very difficult to start a nature-based preschool from scratch — making the state’s work to create an alternative licensing path important.
Finding a classroom space that meets early childhood licensing requirements and is zoned for child care that also has access to a natural outdoor space isn’t easy, she said. Plus, there’s the expense of the low student-to-teacher ratios, as well as teacher licensing requirements, that make it difficult for even conventional preschool programs to stay afloat.
“Colorado’s system makes it really hard to start something like this,” she said.
She said Thorne is expecting its preschool program to lose money initially, with fundraising plus a donor helping to cover the costs.
Starting small, plans to grow
For the fall, the goal is 10 students ages 3 to 6, with two teachers and a third adult volunteer. Classes will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For working parents who need a full day, Thorne is partnering with nearby Mt. View Preschool, which will offer afternoon and Friday classes for Thorne’s students.
“We wanted to start really small and intentional,” Saunders said.
The plan is to expand the preschool program each year, with up to 36 students at full capacity.
Saunders said Thorne hopes to offer scholarships in the future, but noted that would only amount to two or three students a year. To increase accessibility to nature for more children, she said, the plan is to use the eventual profits to work with existing preschools, helping them incorporate nature play in their programs.
As Thorne works on recruiting parents for the new program, Saunders said, the No. 1 question is what happens when the weather is bad.
Snow and rain aren’t a problem, as long as students have the right gear for the weather, she said. For extreme heat or cold, especially with wind, Thorne will follow a child care weather guide to decide if it’s safe to be outside.
Since the classroom is outside, near a public trail, the school has a safety plan that includes the risks and hazards of being in an outdoor, public space, from asking a person with a dog to walk around the group to making sure an adult is with a child who wants to go in the creek.
Another common question is if the program will prepare children for kindergarten or first grade.
Saunders said outdoor experiences foster imaginative play, problem-solving, physical play and social and emotional learning.
Each day starts with an opening conversation that includes talking about weather and giving children an opportunity to share how they’re feeling using weather terms, such as sunny or stormy. Then students will take a short walk to their outdoor classroom, where materials may be set out to stimulate curiosity.
The teachers may place a turtle shell in the area, Saunders said, then ask questions about the shell — what letter does turtle start with, what is this part of the turtle, can they measure it or draw it? There’s also daily story time.
As another example of how Thorne will approach learning, she pointed to a recent preschool parent-and-child group where the kids dug for worms. They used rulers to measure the worms before talking about how worm bodies are different from theirs and how worms benefit the soil.
“The kids were just so excited that they had real worms in their hands,” Saunders said. “That one experience of finding a worm can turn into a whole lesson on literacy and numeracy and compassion for nature. Learning emerges from the child’s interest.”
Boulder’s Lindsay Heger signed up her youngest son, 3-year-old Harrison, for the program in the fall.
She said she was impressed by the program’s extensive open house, including a demonstration lesson for the children in attendance, and the enthusiasm from everyone involved, reminding her of the energy around a business start-up.
“The idea of them being outside and letting nature be a big part of their lives is very appealing,” she said. “We want our boys to grow up to appreciate their surroundings. I want them to learn to protect nature and be good consumers of the Earth.”
She said an outdoor preschool also is a good fit for her son’s personality.
“He likes to be independent,” she said. “He loves to be outside. He loves to get dirty and play with dandelions and worms. Outside, he has a lot more freedom.”