The past year has sparked parents’ interest in Early Childhood Nature programs. Everywhere the benefits of nature are highlighted as essentials for young children’s development. With the increase in the number of Nature programs, it might be hard for parents to decide what program might be the best choice for their child.
As a Director scheduling visits for families, I often meet with parents that come to see our facility. They come with quite common questions that apply to any preschool program like how behavioral issues are handled, or how much free playtime do children have during the day. They have a harder time figuring what questions to ask that might help in making their decision.
Here are a few questions:
1. Is the program operating completely outdoors, or only part of the day?
2. Are children outdoors under all weather conditions?
3. What is the educational approach of the school?
4. Are children guided into activities and exploration or is it more emergent and based on children’s inquiry?
5. How is nature used to implement the curriculum? You might want to make sure that children gain knowledge through exploration in nature. Do not hesitate to ask for concrete examples like: “What will my child learn in the forest?” Is environmental education part of the school environment and curriculum?
6. You might want to know if the school has created an environment that fosters respect for nature. Is the school engaged in recycling and reusing materials? Are children engaged to learn to protect their environment?
7. How will the school communicate about what children have learned? Some schools publish a blog or a newsletter, some others use social media apps. It is important for parents to understand how the experiences in nature connect to Learning.
8. Are the children going on hikes in nature? What are the specific procedures for those? The school should have clear procedures and be able to explain how children are guided during walks.
9. Question the safety aspects that might be essential for you. The school should be able to explain how they assess risk and how they manage risk-taking. For example, would the teacher let children climb high rocks or play with sticks? It will be helpful to identify if the school procedures are aligned with your vision.
10. Does the school offer laundry of muddy clothes? In a nature school, your child might get wet or muddy every day. It is part of exploring and being outdoors in all weather. Asking how the school handles changes and potentially laundry might make a big difference in your family organization. Having muddy laundry coming back home almost every day can be a lot to handle.
11. Is the school diverse? It might be important for your family to know more about the school community. Once you have navigated the questions to ask the potential schools it is also important to envision your child in a nature school and understand why you would make this educational choice. As parents, you know your child best and can weigh the pros and cons of your child attending a Nature program.
Some additional questions to ask yourself
1.Would your child be comfortable being outdoors for long periods of time? Sometimes parents imagine that their children want to be outside all day but it can be very tiring and some children enjoy spending long periods of time inside.
2. Do you like to explore nature as a family? If your child enjoys being in nature with the family the connection to school will be easy and familiar.
3. What are your educational expectations of your child attending a nature program? Defining those expectations will be useful to identify the school that matches them best.
4. Is the location of the school convenient? A long commute to go to school can sometimes affect the whole experience for the child and the family.
5. Is the price tag what you can afford and if not does the school offer financial aid? If you visit several schools, you might want to go with a simple chart with your questions and create a rating of 1 to 5 to have some comparison points. It will be easier to get back to a document than trying to remember all details from your visits. Choosing a preschool is an important decision process but if you have good preparation for your visits, it can make a big difference
As much as Nature programs have gained in popularity in the past year when considering a preschool the level of care for children should still be the most important aspect to consider. When you do your visit, you should feel comfortable and welcomed as well as your child. Taking your child along might help to witness the first interactions and how much staff can connect with children. Even if your child is shy or reserved you should expect some level of connection or at least interest for your child and your family, not just a school presentation. A warm and welcoming environment, easy communication, values-aligned to your family values are all important points.
Once you have covered all aspects of a program and feel comfortable with what you have seen and discussed you will be confident it is the right choice for YOUR child!
Photo credit: @caitlinrheaphotos
Written By: Evelyne Hebrault. She is the Director of a Nature preschool in MA Northshore of Boston.