Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice: Administration
Program administration turns a nature preschool’s philosophy into policy and makes that philosophy visible to program staff, families, and the community. Nature-based program administration pays careful attention to the unique considerations of outdoor teaching and learning, and honors teachers and teachers’ work.
Program administrators are tasked with ensuring that the staff is well qualified and engaged in ongoing professional development; documenting and maintaining the school’s policies and procedures; attending to licensing and quality improvement; promoting equity and inclusion within the program; and engaging with the community. Administrators also ensure that all program staff is equally informed and supportive of the school’s mission and policies so that everyone can effectively represent the school and its philosophy in the community.
The following is a summary of the teaching practices in the Guidebook. Download a pdf of the summary practices here, or find full details on the considerations related to these practices in the Guidebook.
Staff Qualifications and Professional Development
In every early childhood education setting,teachers and administrators need expertise in child development. In nature preschools, the staff also needs additional expertise in environmental education and outdoor safety. Finding and supporting well-qualified teachers and administrators is essential for maintaining a safe, effective, and inclusive school environment.
Ideally, teachers in a nature-based program will have training in nature-based early childhood education. However, a dynamic combination of related skills among staff can also provide a sound teaching team. Administrators consider the combined skills, backgrounds, and experiences that a given teaching team possesses, and consider the complementary skill sets of the teaching teams as a whole during the hiring process to achieve a balance of abilities and approaches. Consideration also is given to the qualifications of substitute staff and volunteers.
The following practices relate to hiring and developing a well prepared staff in a nature-based preschool.
1. Teaching teams include expertise in early childhood education, environmental education, and outdoor safety.
2. Program directors help round out teaching teams’ expertise and also are qualified to provide overall program administration and leadership in a nature-based setting.
3. Program staff is reflective of and responsive to the community and cultures the program serves.
4. The program demonstrates commitment to ongoing professional development to enhance the knowledge and skills of teachers and administrators.
Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures create the framework that allows programs to meet their goals. Clear communication of the policies and procedures to staff and families creates a shared understanding of how the program operates. The following are best practices related to developing and maintaining effective statements of policies and procedures in a nature- based preschool.
1. A “School Handbook” is available to current and prospective families and caregivers to gain an understanding of the goals and policies of the program.
2. A “Staff Training Manual” is available to all staff members and includes all the information included in the “School Handbook” as well as other content specific to operating a nature-based preschool program.
3. School policies and procedures are reviewed and updated on an established schedule and as needed.
Program Evaluation and Improvement
Like any high-quality early education program, nature- based preschools use a variety of means to ensure that the program maintains a safe, effective, and inclusive environment. A variety of tools and mechanisms exist to help ensure that the program is meeting minimum requirements and quality benchmarks. The following practices help nature-based preschools engage in ongoing program evaluation and quality improvement.
1. Programs are licensed when possible.
2. Programs use available tools to assess and improve program quality.
3. Programs employ systems to regularly observe and evaluate teacher performance.
Equity and Inclusion
As in any education program, best practice in nature preschools demands that all children are honored as vital individuals in the learning community. Nature- based programs actively seek out and support children from a variety of cultural, racial, socio-economic, and other backgrounds, and work against biases that can lead to inequities in the program and in the wider community.
Because of the physical demands of outdoor exploration, concerns for children’s safety, and other factors, children with non-traditional needs run the risk of being excluded from nature-based programs. Given that outdoor learning can be particularly beneficial for children with specialized needs, blanket exclusions of children with special needs should be strictly prohibited in nature-based programs.
Teachers play a pivotal front-line role in promoting equity and inclusion in the classroom. Administrators extend that commitment by actively recruiting a diversity of families and staff; ensuring that all program staff are equally well trained in equity and inclusion strategies and can represent the programs’ values and approaches in the community; creating (in partnership with families, teachers, and specialists) individualized plans for learning; and finding supports as needed to ensure all children can participate in and benefit from the nature-based program. The following are professional practices related to the administrator’s role in promoting equity and inclusion in nature-based settings through policy and action.
1. Programs maintain an inclusion policy that commits to meeting the needs of all young children.
2. Programs actively promote their commitment to equity and inclusion.
3. Early intervention, supports, and resources are readily available to children, families and caregivers, and teachers.
4. Programs are culturally inclusive and responsive, emphasizing the value of diversity and working to promote equity.
As an approach to early education that is rooted in promoting children’s connections to their community, nature-based education pays careful attention to developing strategies to engage the community (both within the school and surrounding the school). These relationships will not only promote positive educational outcomes and further the mission and philosophy of the program, but also can help promote the program’s long-term sustainability.
Program administrators employ the following practices to promote community engagement in nature-based preschool settings.
1. Programs employ a community-based approach that connects the school community to the wider natural and cultural community.
2. The program develops positive relationships and communication with parents and caregivers.
3. Nature-based programs partner with appropriate organizations to meet program and community goals.
4. Volunteers enhance the school community as appropriate to the program.
5. Programs maintain positive relationships with boards, executives, institutions, or other individuals or groups who have decision-making authority over the program.