A Bryn Mawr-based nonprofit is aiming to launch a nature-based preschool pilot as soon as next fall.
Depending on funding, Minneapolis Nature Preschool could launch a school-year program in either fall 2018 or fall 2019. The preschool would draw from across the city, and the nonprofit plans to focus on engagement with communities that typically are underrepresented in the outdoors and environmental fields, founder and board chair Alyson Quinn said.
“There’s new research every day emphasizing that children benefit cognitively, socially and physically from nature immersion,” she said. “We want to offer a program that gives families this choice.”
Quinn, a Bryn Mawr resident, became passionate about nature early in life, thanks to exposure from her parents. She said her inspiration for founding the organization came in part from her experience as a science teacher at an alternative school. The school had a preschool below it, and Quinn said she saw how excited the young kids were to go outside.
Quinn began working on the nature-based preschool idea in 2015 after having twins. She enlisted the help of friends, neighbors and community members for a strategic mapping session, held last fall.
The group decided to start by trying weeklong summer and winter models before committing to a school-year model. It held the first camp this past June, enlisting the lead teacher of the Prior Lake/Savage nature-based preschool to direct the camp.
Quinn said 18 kids participated in the summer camp, with the students speaking four different home languages. Three-quarters were Minneapolis residents, and 44 percent received scholarships thanks to the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association.
She said 100 percent of parents said they’d recommend the program to interested families.
The daily activities were student led, Quinn said, with each day based on what the students discovered outside. On the first day, for example, the children went to a pond to catch toads and tadpoles, which led to them inquiring about and discovering the source of a nearby creek.
Other activities included building forts in a creek bed, creating a “pizza shop” among mushroom-covered logs and exploring the forest in the rain.
“There are moments in nature you cannot even plan for as a teacher, and these often provide some of the greatest learning experiences.” Quinn said.
Board member Shelia Williams Ridge, who directs the Shirley G. Moore Lab School at the University of Minnesota, said that learning occurs outdoors in places that teachers don’t expect.
A teacher could take his or her students for a walk, for example, and end up talking about an animal they saw along the way, Williams Ridge noted. Such experiences allow children to problem solve and think creatively about what’s happening in the world, she said.
Nature-based preschools also allow children to observe the changing climate, Williams Ridge said. She noted how at her school, kids saw flowers growing in the third week of January during a recent winter and assumed it was a sign of spring.
“They’re really noticing what the world is like,” Williams Ridge said. “Having these tangible things they know about the world makes it easier for them to understand big concepts later on.”
Quinn said the organization plans on having a three-hour morning program and a three-hour afternoon program for the initial school-year pilot. It’s waiting to hear about certain grants before making a decision on whether or not to start the pilot in fall 2018.
Registration is open for the organization’s winter camp, which will run Jan. 3–5 at the Kroening Interpretive Center in Minneapolis. It costs $80, and a sliding-fee scale is available. Williams Ridge will be the lead teacher.