Originally published in Chicago Tribune, September 25, 2020.

On a hazy September afternoon near a willow tree, a boy with a bright red backpack spotted something slimy on the ground. “Hello, all the mushrooms,” he said, gently tapping the fungus, trying not to crush any as his small feet moved through the grass. 

A teacher asked why they might be growing in that spot. The boy thought for a moment. “Because it’s shady and wet!” That was just one lesson for the group of kids at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool, a program that’s part of the growing field of nature-based early childhood education.

Nature preschools were increasing before the pandemic, more than doubling in the last three years, according to a report from the Natural Start Alliance, a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. The report estimates 585 schools across the country have nature-based education at their core, meaning a significant amount of time is spent outside. Illinois is among the states with the most programs — topping 20. California and Washington, with about 50 programs each, lead the list.

Aerosol transmission of the coronavirus has raised concerns over safety of walled-off spaces, and some parents are wondering if one solution during the pandemic is as simple as stepping outside.

Ann Halley, director of the Botanic Garden school and a member of the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association, said enrollment has increased by more than 60% in the last year alone, and many families are new.

Some programs in the Chicago area have indoor spaces but are scheduled to be largely outside through early summer, even when frigid weather arrives. The programs may use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wind chill chart as a guide for when to head inside, or pick up cues from the kids on their comfort level. But the winter weather ethos, generally, is bundle up.

With the widening field, teachers and parents are searching for ways to make programs more accessible. Child care center licensing standards, unique to each state, are primarily designed for indoor settings. In Illinois, outdoor programs can operate under exemptions. Supporters have proposed a bill modeled after one in Washington, which last year became the first state to officially license outdoor preschools.

There are a few pandemic-related tweaks this year at the Botanic Garden, which is a licensed program, like hand-washing and mask-wearing. There are no family-style snack options. Watering plants is allowed, but other water play is nixed.

The chance to follow the ups and downs of the natural world’s cycles — trees losing their leaves, buds returning — is still there. Earlier in the day, a visit to the garden’s exhibit sparked a theme. “I see one. I see one!” said one girl, looking toward a black- and yellow-striped zebra longwing resting on some violet verbena. The class counted the flutters, one by one, the splashes of primary colors matching backpacks and headbands and masks. Later they stopped for a short story on some tree stumps: “My, Oh My — A Butterfly!”

At a quiet spot between two lakes, the kids transformed into the insects, flapping around. One boy in a dino mask put on some bat wings and ran off. A girl with pink wings asked what butterflies eat, then started her flower search.

Halley said that curiosity comes with the outdoors.

“Taking the children down to the cove area and just sitting and looking at the geese as they’re landing, just that sense of wonder and awe — those are things that can only be supplied when you’re outside,” Halley said. “They cannot be found inside a classroom. And these are the things that inspire lifelong learners.”

Category: In The News

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