As she stood in the sun-dappled forest surrounded by a dozen grinning, muddy preschoolers, Katie Pollock asked her young charges if they wanted to run through the woods.
“Remember, when you safely run in the forest, you have to look up and down because of the tree roots,” she said as the students paired up and got ready for their sprint through the trees.
At Pollock’s command, the 3 and 4-year-olds took off down the wood chip-covered trail back to the grassy area that serves as the class’ home base, laughing and screaming the whole way. It’s not the sort of behavior that’s encouraged in most schools, but the University of Delaware Lab School’s nature-based preschool isn’t an ordinary program.
Believed to be the state’s first nature-based preschool, the program takes place entirely outside with the goal of connecting students with nature and encouraging “healthy risk taking.” The class has drawn 13 students — with spots still available — for the half-day sessions, where activities include playing in a “mud kitchen,” climbing trees, doing yoga and catching frogs and other creatures.
Because the class meets outside regardless of the weather, boots, rain pants, an extra change of clothing and plenty of warm clothes for the winter are the required school supplies. The class also has indoor space available for when it gets too hot or too cold to be outside safely.
Supplying the outdoor classroom, though, was up to Pollock, a self-professed nature-lover who’s been experimenting with outdoor learning at the lab school for years before deciding to take it to the extreme. With help from friends, family, community members and the UD grounds crew, she spent the summer outfitting a grassy area next to the Wyoming Road school with a wooden stage, a mud kitchen, a music area, benches and even trails that wind through the nearby woods.
“I came up here last year and I thought, ‘Why is no one up here?’” she said. “It was this beautiful unkept space.”
Her students certainly appreciate the efforts and Pollock is quick to rattle off the benefits of a nature-based program. Besides getting kids into nature and away from screens, being outdoors taps into a child’s natural sense of wonder and encourages them to ask questions, she said.
For example, during a recent class, one child’s discovery of a black swallow caterpillar kicked off a discussion about what it eats, where it lives and other such questions, Pollock said. Those with learning disabilities such as ADHD also find the program beneficial, she said, because the group is almost always in motion and isn’t confined by a classroom.
The program also aims to build students’ self confidence and decision-making skills by encouraging students to take “healthy risks,” Pollock said. And that sometimes means the instructors step back and let the students figure it out.
During a trip to the creek last month, several students struggled to climb up a roughly foot-high embankment to get to a fort. Instead of picking them up, Pollock and her assistants just encouraged them to make it up themselves. And they did, grabbing on to tree roots, rocks, even digging their hands into the dirt in order to scale the bank.
“We’re here as guides for them instead of just as the givers of knowledge,” Pollock said.
But that philosophy can take a little getting used to as Larissa Rosenberg, a UD senior and Polllock’s student teacher, can readily attest. Rosenberg admits to not ever being “super in touch with nature” and after receiving her assignment last spring, she spent the summer worrying about how her first placement would go.
While Rosenberg knew and liked Pollock — she had been her teacher for a previous undergraduate class — she had no idea what to expect and initially struggled with letting the kids take risks.
“On the first day of class they were climbing a tree and one kid fell and Katie saw my look of horror,” Rosenberg said with a laugh.
The student was fine and over time, Rosenberg has come to see all the advantages of an outdoor program. During one class, for example, she was reading “Leaf Man” to the students, which describes a man made of leaves blowing around the world.
“As I was reading, they were seeing the leaves blowing around them,” Rosenberg said. “In a city school, I would have had to bring in leaves so they could hold them in their hands.”
Pollock’s philosophy has influenced other teachers at the Lab School with nearly all the classes becoming more nature-based in some way, said Cynthia Paris, the school’s director, who noted that other classes frequently use the outdoor classroom when Pollock’s class isn’t there.
The response to the nature-based preschool has been positive so far and Paris expects that to continue as Pollock and others continue to experiment with what a classroom looks like.
“Learning is everywhere,” Paris said. “It’s not just the four walls of the classroom.”