It was a crisp fall morning in Seattle, and in a small section of the Washington Park Arboretum, 24 three-to-five-year olds took their positions. Most were dressed in rain pants, puffy jackets, and waterproof boots. One of them waved goodbye to her mother, then begged a visitor to break a muddy pine cone so she could use the halves as roofs for her fairy homes. Another raced toward the mud kitchen to make rock soup. A third found a paintbrush, then started to paint rocks with a preternatural focus.
Though rain seemed to be looming — as it often does in Seattle — these preschoolers would not be going inside today, or any other day of the year. That’s the calling card of the Fiddleheads Forest School, a half-day preschool program in Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum that meets outside, rain or shine, five days per week, year round. The school’s two classrooms have portable bathrooms (covered in stickers and blocked off by gingham sheets), reading nooks (stocked with waterproof books), designated dry areas (covered by tarps), mud kitchens (with real pots and pans), gathering circles, obstacle courses (made of stumps), and of course, the aforementioned fairy village, where kids can play pretend.
To anyone who has parented a preschooler — or tried to wedge one into a winter coat — a fully-outdoor preschool experience might sound like a daily exercise in frustration, or at least a symphony of whining. But “nature preschools” have been steadily growing since the 1980s, when schools in frigid Denmark pioneered the concept, due at first to a shortage of indoor classroom space.
Then teachers started to notice that the kids who spent more time outdoors were developing better resiliency and social awareness than those in traditional classrooms. Thus forest schools took off across Scandinavia, spread to the UK, and have recently started to take hold in the United States. Today, there are more than 250 “nature preschools” and “nature kindergartens” in 43 states, meeting mostly in gardens and public parks, catering to a largely affluent clientele. (The Fiddleheads half-day program costs $8,060 per year, not counting gear and extra costs for special field trips, although some need-based scholarships are available.)
At a time when climate change predictions are increasingly dire, immersive outdoor education can feel like a tiny way to make an impact on the future. Forest school proponents believe that by instilling a love for the outdoors early on, they can train the youngest citizens to become better stewards of our quickly warming planet.
But forest schools are also well-matched to a range of other modern parenting concerns: There’s the test-driven, early-reading ethos of modern preschools and kindergartens. (At Fiddleheads, the kids dictate their own learning plans and focus mostly on play.) There’s the gnawing feeling that screens are overtaking childhood — leading to what author Richard Louv has termed “nature deficit disorder.”
And there’s the idea that western childhood has become too coddled. That’s where inclement weather comes in, says Fiddleheads co-founder Sarah Heller. Keeping kids outside year round, she contends, builds stamina, confidence, and resilience. It also translates to an obsession with quality outdoor gear: Fiddleheads has a gear rental library, and parents are instructed early on about the myriad coats, hats, pants, boots, and mittens their kids will need to survive a winter in the wild.
Fiddleheads teachers say their curriculum also helps kids adjust to bad weather. During the fall, the students focus on understanding the seasons. In the winter months, they do a lot of exploring and moving to keep themselves warm. In the spring, they focus on projects that integrate what they learned during the winter.
By instilling a love for the outdoors, they believe they can train kids to become better stewards of the planet.
“We talk a lot about listening to our bodies,” says Fiddleheads teacher Jenn Leibham. “This helps us prepare for winter. On cold days, when the kids are miserable, we acknowledge that being miserable is okay. We sit down and I ask: What do you need? Then we pause. We do those things. And we make it through.”
The teachers, meanwhile, figure it could always be worse. When Heller visited forest schools in Norway, teachers told her that their kids walk five miles per day during the winter, to stay warm.
In sunny weather, at least, there is something about being out in the woods, surrounded by children in jewel-toned coats and colorful boots, that feels undeniably idyllic. Even standard lessons about sharing and caring somehow take on a mythical quality: When I visited the school this fall, I helped a tiny blonde named Reese build a home for her fairies, with instructions to pay special attention to creating a home that the green fairy would like. The green fairy had been excluded in the past, Reese said, so she wanted to make sure that the fairy would come this time.
Later, I joined a puffy-suit-clad 3-year-old who seemed pristinely calm as she brushed green paint methodically onto a muddy rock. I helped a blond boy build a hole in the ground, giggling as he dug up the computer mouse he’d buried in the dirt the day before. I watched the kids hold a dance party on a piece of thin wood, listened as they sang songs in “plant speak” (“Plaaaant planty plant plaaaaant”), and helped them investigate the mystery of a rogue sunflower seed that had somehow ended up in the fairy village.
The forest does seem to provide ample opportunities for child-led learning. On one recent day, Leibham said, some kids noticed tunnels on the log where they sit for their morning circle. The tunnels formed a maze, and the kids thought an animal’s nails might have dug the lines. Leibham called in one of the arboretum’s horticulturists to confirm this, and it turned out the tunneling was made by a certain type of beetle. Later, the kids went on a hike and, to their delight, found more beetles.
Leibham says the kids also make their own classroom rules, to help them understand boundaries and rule-setting. “Healthy risks are important,” she says. “But we need a plan, and we need to check in with ourselves to understand what feels comfortable.”
“On cold days, when the kids are miserable, we acknowledge that being miserable is okay.”
Recently, some of the children announced that they felt unsafe on the teeter totter in the obstacle course — a board laid across a log, which seemed dangerously close to some other logs. So they held a classroom meeting, and the teachers helped the students move the teeter totter to a place that felt more comfortable. They even hung up a sign about the risk.
In another nod to modern sensibilities, the Fiddleheads students regularly practice mindfulness. Each kid has a designated “special spot” in the classroom, an individual place to take a break, invite a friend over, or simply sit in quiet.
Here in the woods, the sights and sounds of the city are less apparent and it feels easier to stop and — literally — smell the roses. At one point, as the breeze started to blow and pine needles rained down on our heads, all of the children around me gleefully shouted, “FALL!!” All of their lessons that month, it turned out, had been about the changing seasons. “Fall is my FAVORITE because LEAFS!” one little boy declared when I asked him which season he liked best.
For these kids, forest preschool seems like pure joy. That helps explains why the niche institutions have proven a big draw: In the Seattle area alone, there are a number of outdoor preschool programs, some of which pay special attention to financial assistance. Though Fiddleheads has only been open for six years, the waiting list for its 24 slots is more than 150 families long. The school recently opened an afternoon class to try to accommodate the extra interest.
Still, forest schools aren’t for everyone. Many parents worry about their kids getting hurt, dirty, sick and cold, and thus will never send their kids to these kinds of programs. Fiddleheads doesn’t have a special education program or a lot of racial diversity, though its demographics largely match those of greater Seattle.
And some education experts say the benefits of an outdoor education, among a cohort of kids from similar backgrounds, could be overstated.
“Getting children outside and engaging them in learning about the natural world is not inherently a bad thing, particularly when juxtaposed with the large amounts of time that children in traditional classrooms spend indoors doing seat work,” says Fikile Nxumalo, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Texas at Austin. “But these [forest] schools remain in predominantly privileged spaces.”
Nxumalo says she’s not sure the United States needs more forest preschools. “I’m more interested in the kinds of shifts that are needed to educate young children within all kinds of educational institutions,” she says.
That extends, she says, to how schools should address growing concerns about the climate. The very qualities that make forest schools feel so enchanting, she says — the fairy playgrounds, the quiet spaces — might limit their effect as a training ground for future environmentalists.
“These schools perpetuate a romanticized version of nature,” she says, “and there is a lot of work showing why this construction of nature is inadequate.”
Forest school proponents, on the other hand, argue that you have to teach children to love the natural world before they can truly care about it; that’s precisely why the programs combine education with play and exploration outside. The children I saw at Fiddleheads did seem to appreciate and understand nature — perhaps even more than most other 4-year-olds I know. The teachers say that many of the children bring their families outdoors on the weekends, too.
But Nxumalo says ideally, schools should teach kids to understand the ecological challenges in their own communities, not just in a pristine corner of the woods.
That, she says, may be the real secret to keeping the planet healthy for generations to come.