Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (2022)

Outdoor schools are gaining in popularity and sprouting up across the US and Canada. Now more than ever, parents realize the benefits and importance of their kids spending time outside, in the natural world, and learning through hands-on nature-based education. But, what exactly is an outdoor school, where do you find one, and what do kids need to wear to attend? We’ve got all the answers to these questions and more!

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Getting acquainted with outdoor schools

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Alyssa Marsh, one of the founders of the newly launched Outdoor School Shop (ODSS), on the Run Wild My Child Podcast. I got to pick her brain on all things outdoor school-related. Over the last few years, I’ve heard more and more about “outdoor schools” and outdoor education in general, but I did not know a lot about the whole outdoor school movement in elementary education. My kids attend a traditional school, and there are not a lot of outdoor schools around where we live.

However, outdoor schools are gaining in popularity and sprouting up across the US at an unprecedented level. Even before the pandemic, outdoor school numbers were increasing, but now more than ever, the benefits of spending the majority of school-time hours outdoors is readily apparent to parents.

Outdoor School Shop’s mission is to outfit (forgive the pun) families and outdoor schools with the right outerwear so that gear never becomes the reason a child is not happy and thriving at outdoor school. In addition to selling all things waterproof, warm, and durable, ODSS is a big proponent of educating everyone about the concept of outdoor schools, how they’re different, where to find one, and how to dress for attending one.

Since we’ve received so much positive feedback on the episode and lots of really great questions about outdoor schools, I’m here to share a little about what I learned while chatting with Alyssa on the podcast. I also encourage you all to listen in for all the details! You can access the podcast recording on Apple podcasts on our podcast webpage or whatever app you use to get your podcasts.

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What are outdoor schools?

According to Alyssa at ODSS, outdoor schools fall into the following categories: forest schools, nature preschools, farm schools, Waldorf schools, select Montessori programs, and traditional schools, which have pivoted to outdoor education due to the pandemic.

Forest schools are the most intensively focused on outdoor time, with some programs conducting the entire school day outside no matter the weather. Nature preschools spend at least 30% of their day outdoors and infuse their curriculum with nature as the steady theme. Students at farm schools spend between 30 to 50% of their time outdoors and ground their learning around the farm’s ecosystem.

At Waldorf schools, the outdoor curriculum often includes forest and farm early childhood programs, school gardens and outdoor horticulture. Many Waldorf schools also have dedicated forest kindergartens. The amount of time spent outdoors at a Montessori school really depends on the school’s individual mission, so make sure you do your research if outdoor time and focus is important to your family.

Finally, there is a lot of movement in more traditional school programs to get outside, whether that’s a couple of hours a day or a more dedicated approach to outdoor education. It is worth taking a minute to investigate what options your local school district may be offering, and if there aren’t any, maybe you could get a conversation going?

Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (3)Photo credit: @star_child_nature_school

The number of outdoor schools is growing!

The number of outdoor schools in North America has grown exponentially over the last couple of years. Prior to the pandemic, numbers of outdoor schools were on the rise, but the onset of COVID really pushed numbers to grow at an unprecedented rate. Not only were more outdoor schools being formed, but traditional schools and otherwise mostly indoor education started moving outside at a rapid pace. Exact stats are a little hard to come by, but according to folks at the North American Association for Environmental Education, the number of nature-based preschools grew at least 500 percent in the U.S. since 2012.

Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (4)Photo credit: @wildwood.forestschool

Where to find an outdoor school near you

With the growing demand for kids to spend more time outside, outdoor schools are popping up in cities and towns across the US. It can be hard to find a great outdoor school in your area (as they usually don’t have a big budget for advertising), but ODSS is here to help. ODSS has built an online directory of outdoor schools in North America. This is the most comprehensive directory out there, with 1000+ schools and growing every day.

The outdoor school directory focuses on schools for toddlers to 12-year-olds. It also includes outdoor daycares for the littlest ones. Run Wild My Child is happy to co-host that very same directory on our website as well. To use the directory, just enter your zip code and select your town from the results in the drop-down. You will be provided access to all the schools within a 20-mile radius of your town.

I entered my zip code, and there was only one result, but I am hopeful lots of you are going to get much more impressive results! There are parts of North America that are far ahead of other areas in terms of outdoor school presence, but I’m hopeful that we will all catch up soon! This is a growing and exciting movement in education and one that we feel will greatly benefit our kids.

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Benefits of outdoor schools and outdoor education

There are many compelling reasons for your child to attend outdoor school but let me walk you through the highlights. Children (all of us, really) need time to thoroughly explore our thoughts, feelings, and relationships. When they spend time outdoors, children are able to develop a deep understanding of their world, the environment, and everything in it. Through imagination and exploration, their world opens to endless possibilities. (Source: Magnolia Forest Preschool).

A growing amount of research and study on outdoor education for young children has become available over the last 30 years. It is well documented that children’s development can be enhanced greatly outdoors in a number of areas. The following are some of the top benefits that outdoor learning and outdoor activities, in general, provide for children (source: Upper Manhattan Forest Kids).

  • leadership
  • imagination and creative thinking skills
  • motor skills and gross muscle development
  • independence
  • self-confidence and resiliency
  • strengthened immune system
  • increased spatial sense and awareness
  • beneficial to children with attention/control issues

Want to read more about the benefits of outdoor school and infusing your child in nature? ODSS has a fantastic, curated “Book Nook” with lots of great titles – wonderful options for kids too!

Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (6)Photo credit: @littlebugsnaturepreschool

What do kids wear to outdoor schools?

If you think that an outdoor school would be the perfect fit for your child, you are likely wondering what kids wear to outdoor schools. Outdoor School Shop has you covered on this front! They carry top-notch gear that comes highly recommended to ensure that your child is always comfortable, warm, and dry and able to focus on the experience and not the weather.

ODSS scoured the market, interviewed countless outdoor educators, and test-drove the gear on their own kids. They came up with a shop stocked with the best selection of outerwear for outdoor school students. However, when I say “best”, I do not mean the most expensive! That’s not always the case. “Best” means best-suited to the environmental demands that outdoor school will require from your child’s outerwear, depending on your location and the weather you experience there.

Best-suited is different for kids in different locations. Outdoor school students in Florida dress differently than those in Vermont. This is why ODSS created extremely handy gear checklists specific to each region of the country that addresses this question. The checklists are free and available on their website. ODSS has also worked hard at producing a super helpful primer on how to dress our children in layers for efficient body heat regulation.

Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (7)Photo credit: @muddyrivernatureschool

Outdoor schools create future stewards of the natural world

At Run Wild My Child, we’re really excited about the possibilities that outdoor schools bring to families who want their children to be outdoors and experience the wonder and beauty of nature from an early age. We know first-hand the benefits of raising kids outside and the importance of spending time in nature. The hope is that this early exposure to forests, farms and other outdoor locations will create a bond between the child and the natural environment that will never be severed. Outdoor schools are helping create the future stewards of our world!

Outdoor Schools: The Next Big Thing in Early Childhood Education (8)Photo credit: @forestfolkacademy

Have you ever considered an outdoor school for your child?

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