Over the past several years, the nature-based preschool movement has proved successful at navigating a very large amount of change in a relatively short period of time. Today nature preschools are thriving in a variety of settings, from nature centers to universities, urban parks to senior living homes.
Widespread interest has led to an abundance of media exposure and attention: nearly every major news network has featured at least one story on the “phenomenon” of nature preschool and many respected newspapers—from the Washington Post to the New York Times—have done the same.
Yet the movement still exists outside of the mainstream, and the result is that we often find ourselves explaining and acclaiming the benefits of our approach to the newly acquainted, over and over again. “What do you do when it rains?,” “Don’t the kids just wander off?,” “Does all that time outside really prepare them for kindergarten?”
It can be exhausting. It leaves little room for acknowledging the sometimes-messy reality that exists in any educational setting: the limits of our environment and the unique stresses that come along with it. In the midst this influx of attention, finding others who understand our experience is particularly important. Sometimes, it’s nice just to know that someone gets what you’re going through.
The Nature-Based Preschool National Conference
So it was with much anticipation that I approached the 2016 Nature-Based Preschool National Conference. My first time attending was in 2015 at the Elachee Nature Center in Gainesville, Georgia. It was transformative, expanding my awareness beyond my program’s local impact to the national movement at large. I distinctly remember the feeling of walking into a room of people I’d never met and feeling instantly at ease. The support, the empathy, the idea sharing, all of it broadened and transformed my perspective on the work I was doing.
I felt so empowered and invigorated by my first time attending that I couldn’t help feeling anxious as the 2016 date approached. So much had happened in the past year, so much had changed. I couldn’t wait to share, to listen, and to reflect on it all.
And yet, the very change I excitedly anticipated discussing with my friends and peers nagged at me, too. The expansion of nature preschool programs across the country meant that the conference had doubled in size from the year before. As I flew across the country from Seattle, I wondered whether I’d feel the same sense of connection, whether I’d have that same sense of coming home.
This time, the conference was held at the serenely beautiful Dodge Nature Center and Preschool in St. Paul, Minnesota. What I found there was a continuation of the important themes, experiences, and connections that Natural Start has developed with each successive year. Coming to Dodge Nature Center was indeed like coming home, and even those people I met for the first time seemed like old friends.
Beyond the sessions themselves, the conference planning team did a tremendous job of creating a safe space for all of us to share, connect, and grow our practice with integrity and mutual understanding.
The concurrent sessions reflected both the scope of the nature-based early childhood education movement and its progress over the past decade. I am consistently struck by the commitment of my peers to resource sharing, and the presenters of these sessions were no exception. Even now, a full month later, I am still making my way through all the information and ideas I gathered over just a few days.
The topics were targeted to appeal to educators with a broad range of proficiency. For those just getting started, there were sessions that focused on establishing new programs, adding or expanding outdoor environments, and utilizing the strengths a particular environment to one’s advantage. Accompanying these were plenty of opportunities for those already working in established programs, ranging from the abstract (“Looking at the Relationship between Spiritual Development and Nature”) to the concrete (”STEM in Sandbox”). Three tracks—Administration, Teaching, and 101—helped attendees identify the sessions that would most suit their needs, but everyone was free to attend whichever session they chose.
Research roundtables—a new addition this year—provided conference-goers with the chance to learn about some of the important questions being addressed by researchers in the field, and to share some of their own. It will be exciting to see how this develops as more researchers turn their attention to capturing the impacts of nature-based education on early childhood development.
The three plenary sessions gave attendees an opportunity to connect and reflect on where we are as a movement and where we might go from here. Ruth Wilson’s inspiring keynote examined the core of our identity in the nature preschool movement, looking to the mandates of the Earth Charter as inspiration, and deconstructing the question of “Are We There Yet?”
A panel discussion on risk dealt directly with the concerns that have sometimes kept me awake at night: the “what-ifs” and “then-whats?” that are part and parcel of working with children outdoors. Christy Merrick, Natasha Frost, Rachel Larimore, and Joey Schoen helped us acknowledge some of the important considerations that underlie the careful balancing act required of programs like mine, which by their nature must not only provide for developmentally appropriate risk but also minimize hazards in a dynamic setting.
The final panel, “Diverse Perspectives on Dodge Nature Preschool” gave us a delightful sort of live retrospective on the life of an organization. It provided conference-goers with a meaningful example of a path to the sort of success that we all might strive for: a well-respected program that has been in existence for over 15 years. Hearing from teachers, alumni, benefactors, and parents gave us unique insight into the passion, professionalism, and dedication that has made Dodge Nature Preschool into what it is today.
Exposure to Varied Environments
After two full days of learning, connecting, and taking in more information than I thought possible, I was ready for the experiential learning opportunities provided by the field trips. Exploring three very different programs allowed us to process the lessons of the days before.
Our time at Dodge Nature Center provided us with lush, natural beauty and an inspirational sense of professionalism from the staff to the grounds themselves. The three field trips—including the inspiring and intergenerational All Seasons Preschool at Inver Glen Senior Living, the Tamarak Nature Preschool located on a gorgeous 320 acre preserve, and the Children’s Country Day School (featuring a model farm complete with Alpacas and CeeCee the miniature pony)—built on our experience at Dodge and left attendees with a sense of great possibility.
I wandered through each site snapping photos and taking joy in the diverse landscape of programs that fall under the umbrella of nature preschool. At the end of the day, my camera and notebook overflowed with a wealth of new ideas and images to incorporate into my own practice back home.
Local and National Connections
“There’s no sense of competitiveness,” one conference goer shared with me. “There’s a feeling that if everyone pours their knowledge and experience into something like this, the whole field rises.” Return attendees quickly took the opportunity to help integrate newcomers, introducing them to those in the field who might help them get started, and even those who’d been in the field for many years appeared eager and open to learn from their newer peers.
As I meandered through the grounds, I watched as attendees gathered in large groups on the lawn to reflect on the day’s events, or broke off in pairs of two or three to stroll along trails engrossed in conversation. Everyone seemed engaged and excited by the opportunity to share experiences and ideas and ask questions.
A Safe Space
At the end of the day, being a pioneer in nature-based early childhood education includes the burden of knowing that while each of our successes reflects on the field as a whole, our failures do too. Walking this line takes a kind of effort that pushes us to strive further, to aim higher, and to achieve more.
That is why it is particularly special to come to a conference like this. At Dodge, I could expect to encounter peers with a shared vocabulary and sense of identity. The Natural Start Alliance, and everyone who partnered with them to put on this conference, provided us with a place where it felt safe to connect with others regardless of our experience, safe to ask questions, safe to admit being unsure or unconvinced. It also was a place where we could confront challenging questions openly with one another, a place where we could discuss the needs of the movement as a whole as well as our needs as individuals participating in the movement. In the end, it sure felt like coming home.
My flight west after the conference was tinged with that certain mixture of excitement and trepidation that only comes with great responsibility. The 2017 Nature-Based Preschool National Conference will take place in my home city of Seattle. It will be my job, in part, to preserve the connections, the culture, and the closeness of this unique conference while still making room for the innovation and the growth that continues throughout the field.
Seattle is perhaps an ideal setting in this regard, for it is a place rich with its own traditions of innovation and growth, from our First Nations cultural heritage, to our thriving tech community, to the incredible natural landscape that surrounds our city. There is so much to see and do here that it will be difficult to pack it all into just a few days. But like most of us in this field I relish a challenge, and I’m looking forward to the task of helping my home become yours for a few wondrous days next August.
About the Author
Kit Harrington is a co-founder and director of the Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle, WA, where she pursues her passion for helping children develop self-regulation in the outdoor classroom environment. She believes deeply in supporting children's learning and development through the cultivation of wonder and connection to the natural world. Kit is committed to supporting the field of nature-based education and recently developed the Washington Nature Preschool Association to that end. In her free time, she loves exploring, adventuring, and splashing in puddles.