When was the last time you joyfully ran down a grassy hill and collapsed, exhausted, sweaty, and dirty into a fit of laughter? When was the last time your kids did?

Sometimes programs with a strong academic focus and a goal of making children ‘school ready’ ask them to sit in circles and chairs for long periods of time despite young children often not being developmentally ready for this type of direct instruction.

Every day at Northeast LA Forest Wonderschool, we enjoy exploring in a natural setting that offers preschoolers a chance to build literacy and math skills through play.

Exploring animal bones at Northeast LA Forest Wonderschool

In addition to developmentally appropriate learning activities, we foster math, literacy, and science through real experience. The simple act of climbing a tree hand over hand strengthens the connections between the lobes of the brain, a necessary connection for the building of reading skills.

Sorting seeds and leaves into categories, finding patterns in the shapes of flowers, and making rock pile sculptures bolster early math concepts that can be found later in algebra and geometry.

Amongst the trees at Northeast LA Forest School

A 2003 study cited by a New York Times article about German waldkitas, or “forest kindergartens”, showed that “graduates of German forest kindergartens had a ‘clear advantage’ over the graduates of regular kindergartens, performing better in cognitive and physical ability, as well as in creativity and social development.”

Just a few months ago, PBS Newshour aired ”Nature’s Classroom”, which followed children in a nature preschool in Michigan on their daily activities.

The segment highlighted how outdoor play prepares a child for kindergarten by organically including daily activities like scientific studies, math and engineering, and confidence building.

These children learn in an environment that is not static like an indoor classroom might be, but instead, one that is ever-changing. The humidity might be different one day to the next; a leaf might be chewed on when it wasn’t yesterday; there might be footsteps where there weren’t any the day before. This dynamic environment provides fuel for their curiosity.

Child outside in forest school

Researchers from Michigan State University have been observing and testing students from the Michigan nature preschool and other similar schools to determine kindergarten readiness. The preliminary results have been overwhelmingly positive and children attending nature preschools have proven just as prepared as their indoor counterparts.

So forest schools not only prepare children academically but also offer the added health and social-emotional benefits of learning from nature. Apparently time in the mud can teach us a lot.

Becca Hackett-Levy is the Director and Head Teacher of Northeast LA Forest Wonderschool. She has more than and a decade of child care and classroom experience and holds a Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Hunter College. Becca is proud to continue her professional development with the Academy of Forest Kindergarten Teachers in Santa Barbara. She lives in Northeast Los Angeles with her husband and son.

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