Feature Story

October 2020

Photo by: Berkeley Forest School

Taking Preschool Outdoors: Resources and Reflections

Natural Start Staff

We may be socially distant, but we are professionally united as we navigate education in a pandemic. To help keep our nature-based education community connected, Natural Start has been hosting virtual forums, and our latest forum on reopening brought interesting insights into where we are as a field as most programs have reopened or are planning to open soon.

Three nature preschool directors who are leading 100% outdoor programs this school year provided overviews of their programs: Catherine Koons Hubbard (she/her), who directs the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool in Wisconsin; Lesley Romanoff (she/her), who is the Director and Lead Teacher of the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School in Maryland; and Liana Chavarín (she/her), who is the Founder and Director of the Berkeley Forest School in California. The discussion centered on the challenges, positive outcomes, and unexpected moments that come with reopening nature preschools amid a pandemic. The full recording is below, and we've summarized some of the key highlights here.


What Did We Learn?

At the beginning of the pandemic, most programs closed and were unsure of when they would reopen. Now, months later, nearly 90% of nature-based programs have reopened or plan to reopen soon:

As interest in outdoor education has grown over the last few months, we’ve also been asked about enrollment trends across nature preschools. Despite a notable increase in demand for outdoor education broadly, more than two-thirds of programs anticipate lower enrollment this year, likely due to the restrictions put in place that require smaller group sizes and hesitation from parents not yet ready to return to in person learning.

We also asked those in attendance to share their plans for spending time outside during the school day, learning that most programs are planning for days spent entirely outdoors. Though time spent outdoors in not new for most members of our community, we are seeing an increase in the amount of time programs plan to be outdoors, which comes with its own adjustments.

Next, we heard from presenters, who, along with many of the participants, seemed to share a common sentiment: though this new path can be exhausting, frustrating, and at times make you throw your hands in the air not knowing what to do next, the joy of having children back, spending time in nature together, and reconnecting with families balances out the more wearisome moments.

For Catherine Koons Hubbard at Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool, finding this balance meant redefining what success looks like.

“Success is sort of no longer really, 'How much revenue are we bringing in?' or 'Are our classes full?' That’s all well and good but what we’re looking at now is more, 'Are we meeting the needs of our community?' Parents are calling just in tears because they’re so worried about their children being home and on screens. So we’re trying to redefine success in terms of providing experiences that children are currently being denied, as far as getting out and having these authentic experiences in nature. Instead we are just really talking about what’s going on with children in their lives right now and how can we help? And what’s going on with us and in our lives and how can we support one another?”

And for Lesley Romanoff at Takoma Park Cooperative, the path forward meant committing to a plan and sticking to it, even when there was initial resistance from families.

“We committed early on to 100% outside. We knew that was the answer, we knew it, but we just couldn’t get lift off with the families. The Board of Directors, our parents and the Board, the people who were still involved, said we’re committing to 100% outside. We reopened enrollment and now we are fully enrolled. We have a lot of interest in this 100% [outdoors]. Even though we felt that initial “uh-oh,” we can push forward, and we know confidently that we could enroll another class if we could invent one.”

To round out the presentations, Liana Chavarín discussed Berkeley Forest School's focus on building relationships and recognizing and respecting children’s needs right now.

“Everything is built on relationships. Relationships come first. Relationships with ourselves, our community, and with the land. Our first job as teachers is to earn a trusting relationship from the children and we recognize the children have been through so much and they have had this great disruption in their lives, their routines, and their people. We know that as we start the first week, especially as we are starting with masks on, in a new space, and with children they might have never met before, it may take a little bit for us to earn their trust. We need to consider the whole child, of course, and what lived experiences they may be bringing with them to forest school.”

Following the presentations, discussions continued around challenges and successes, and participants shared notes on the highlights of their discussions, which revealed that despite challenges and unexpected lessons, there also have been some silver linings. Here's some of what we heard. 

Continued challenges of reopening:

  • Weather, especially rain and cold.
  • Staff fears of getting sick.
  • Uncertainty of possibly having to close due to community spread of COVID.
  • Not sharing substitute teachers between programs, groups, or sites.
  • Outdoor noise in urban areas.
  • Suffient funding to cover the supplies needed to remain open. 
  • Not having control over when to reopen—"Our program is based through a college so we have to follow the college guidelines. If they are closed, we are closed."
  • Staying connected with families when in person programming is not an option. 

Unexpected moments:

  • The kids have been so, so happy to be back in school! The parents are also extremely enthusiastic and accommodating with the many changes we’ve had to make to our program.
  • The longer school is open, the more relaxed families become with social distancing outside of school, which could have negative repercussions in school.
  • How relaxed the kids are. But also how talk of “the virus” pops up frequently in conversation and in play.
  • Face masks have not been a big deal!
  • Everything is unexpected, each day we learn something new and then it changes :)

On the positive side:

  • Full classes and excited families!
  • There is so much wildlife around us that we have never noticed before. It was there, be we weren’t looking.
  • Gaining trust of parents and children by being confident and prepared.
  • This has become an outlet for more creativity in teaching and schooling.
  • The investment in learning outdoors changing our practice long-term.
  • Kids are loving being outside full time!


We'll leave you with a touching closing thought from Liana Chavarín:

“The crucial and necessary role at this time in history is really difficult and I want to thank you all for continuing to be in this work even though it’s way more challenging than we ever anticipated. Raising children well is the best we have to offer for our future. Thank you all.”


Additional Resources:

These resources and products were shared by members of our community as being particularly helpful right now. If you have resources to add to this list, share them with us at [email protected].




Tips & Tricks:

  • Wear disposable masks under cloth masks when it’s wet outside.
  • Use more visual cues—Takoma Park displays a stuffed animal (who is masked!) indicating to children when it’s play time, story time, or snack time, which has improved children’s scanning skills and made them more observant while saving educators’ voices!
  • Save educators’ voices by using a clip on microphone and speaker under masks.
  • For warm water outdoors for hand washing, use an insulated cooler, such as Coleman water coolers.
  • If using portable heaters during cold weather, it’s vital to place them on a flat surface. Also teaching children not to run near or touch them as a safety precaution.


Watch the recording of the forum below.