CHICAGO — On a hazy September afternoon near a willow tree, a boy with a bright red backpack spotted something slimy on the ground.
“Hello, all the mushrooms,” he said, gently tapping the fungus, trying not to crush any as his small feet moved through the grass.
A teacher asked why they might be growing in that spot. The boy thought for a moment. “Because it’s shady and wet!”
That was just one lesson for the group of kids at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool, a program that’s part of the growing field of nature-based early childhood education.
Nature preschools were increasing before the pandemic, more than doubling in the last three years, according to a report from the Natural Start Alliance, a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. The report estimates 585 schools across the country have nature-based education at their core, meaning a significant amount of time is spent outside. Illinois is among the states with the most programs — topping 20. California and Washington, with about 50 programs each, lead the list.
Aerosol transmission of the coronavirus has raised concerns over safety of walled-off spaces, and some parents are wondering if one solution during the pandemic is as simple as stepping outside.
Ann Halley, director of the Botanic Garden school and a member of the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association, said enrollment has increased by more than 60% in the last year alone, and many families are new.
Some programs in the Chicago area have indoor spaces but are scheduled to be largely outside through early summer, even when frigid weather arrives. The programs may use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wind chill chart as a guide for when to head inside, or pick up cues from the kids on their comfort level. But the winter weather ethos, generally, is bundle up.
With the widening field, teachers and parents are searching for ways to make programs more accessible. Child care center licensing standards, unique to each state, are primarily designed for indoor settings. In Illinois, outdoor programs can operate under exemptions. Supporters have proposed a bill modeled after one in Washington, which last year became the first state to officially license outdoor preschools.
There are a few pandemic-related tweaks this year at the Botanic Garden, which is a licensed program, like hand-washing and mask-wearing. There are no family-style snack options. Watering plants is allowed, but other water play is nixed.
The chance to follow the ups and downs of the natural world’s cycles — trees losing their leaves, buds returning — is still there.
This summer, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, encouraged outdoor schooling. “Get as much outdoors as you can,” he said. “If you look at the super-spreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.” New York City announced a plan to use yards and nearby parks for outdoor learning. In Chicago, heading outside isn’t unprecedented; a tuberculosis outbreak in 1909 led to “open air schools.”
Teresa Weed, who used to run an outdoor program partnered with the Chicago Park District, is hoping legislation will be passed to formally outline an early childhood education model that will help outdoor preschools become accredited programs in the state.
Weed said she was fascinated by the idea that “the forest is the curriculum.” She ended up leading the Forest Playschool at Walking Stick Woods, which closed last year after complaints from some neighbors and a report from the Park District’s inspector general.
After seeing the growth from students at Forest, Weed said she would like to see the model made available to any interested families. Weed said she went to a forest school training in Scotland last spring, and when she explained why she was visiting, even the taxi driver knew about forest schools.
“You can teach anything outdoors, I think, with creativity,” Weed said. “There’s this sense of adventure and joy. It’s really enlivening, outdoor education. And it just seems like children who have been in isolation really need that. Children learn so much from other children.”
Weed has the support of some state representatives and is hoping for a meeting with the governor’s office to talk about next steps. She plans to cover how outdoor preschools can help make up for the emotional and physical learning lost during quarantine and online learning.
“[The Department of Children and Family Services] is still reviewing the proposed legislation,” agency spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement, “however there are already exemptions in place related to outdoor daycare which allow for collaboration with the owner of an open space to ensure basic safety measures are met.”
The proposed bill is modeled after the one passed in Washington state. “And there’s some question of, we need to adapt it for our climate,” Weed said. “But they have the worst weather. ... Give me a nice, crisp 28 degrees with fresh snow and sunshine any day over 40 and rain.”