Outdoor preschools greenlit during pandemic connect early lessons to nature

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SCHAUMBURG — A chilly winter day at Spring Valley Nature Preserve is where the work begins for Miss Elizabeth and her young outdoor preschool class.

For the past 14 weeks, teacher Elizabeth Hammon led the first-ever outdoor nature preschool in Schaumburg. 

“We have a lot of free play time, a lot of unstructured exploration; we’re not sitting and doing necessarily strict lessons… like a traditional preschool might,” she explains.

As you can imagine, the mix of outdoor activity and go-with-the-flow plan is a great way to break the ice for kids of such a tender age.

“I find that the kids are easier to focus on a single thing when we’re out here, even though you’d think there’d be distraction and running around; we do plenty of running around,” Hammon said.

The idea for an all-outdoor class isn’t a new one, but it is newer in the U.S. Over in Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe where they’re more common they’re known as “forest kindergartens.”

“There are definitely nature preschools programs that have cropped up in the last several years, at other nature centers in the Chicago area and around the country,” said Dave Brooks, Schaumburg Park District.

Brooks oversees conservation services for the park district. He said after mulling the forest preschool idea he gave it the green light in light of the pandemic. 

“We originally conceived just a single session, in the morning two days a week and that filled almost instantaneously,” Brooks said.

That response from parents made for two classes, not just one.

Maryam Siddiqui brought not only her daughter, but also her sister and her little boy. She said all of them have come to appreciate using nature to learn.

“She just lets you learn in different ways, I may not have come up with them,” Siddiqui said. “They’re doing what they need to do for preschool but they’re learning in ways that are just amazing.”

These lessons are appreciated in a new way by a new generation, that for better or worse is growing up with easy access to technology indoors. 

Parents said they’ve noticed a change in how their kids —  and even they —  look at nature.

“Just now she picked up a log from under the bench and there was a caterpillar and she had it on her, whereas before she wouldn’t have been willing to do that,” she said. “There’s a lot of learning in that. You don’t realize but in that one thing they learn so much.”

Learning is the key for Miss Elizabeth, who said it’s the right mix of lessons for the right time as nature provides an opening to expand growing minds.

“I’m always impressed by the things they have picked up that I wouldn’t have necessarily have thought to have been the thing that they picked up,” Hammon said. “We want them to have an understanding of how Earth systems work, how they can help protect it and how they themselves can make a difference.”

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