When Dallas mom Elizabeth Hoffman began looking at preschools for her daughter Adelaide a couple of years ago, her excitement about the milestone quickly dimmed. “I was so sad to learn how much time was spent inside, with only a few opportunities to be outside,” recalls Hoffman, “and the outside time was in very controlled environments—playgrounds, but little nature. I knew that so much of Adelaide’s future would likely be inside and at a desk—I wanted to preserve as much natural time for her as I could.”
Hoffman, who decided to enroll her daughter at Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Preschool, is on board a movement to increase the time young children spend outside and in nature. And there are multiple opportunities to engage them in nature play across Dallas-Fort Worth as they learn typical early childhood skills.
The benefits of nature play and outdoor learning
“Children and families who spend time in nature are healthier and happier, and the kids perform better in school,” shares Sarah Coles, Texas Children in Nature Network executive director. She points to research showing that natural environments are tied to higher activity levels, stronger self-esteem and increased creativity, and that children who spend time in nature boost their ability to follow directions, work cooperatively and problem-solve.
Many early childhood programs strive to get kids involved in and appreciative of the natural world through activities such as garden time and field trips to, say, a petting zoo. But the benefits multiply when children spend the vast majority of the time in an outdoor learning environment and learn lessons through the lens of nature.
That’s the M.O. at Cross Timbers Forest Preschool, located at the City of Southlake’s Bob Jones Nature Center. Curriculum is customized to the local ecosystem, and each class (which kids attend once or twice a week) includes time running and playing the center’s field; outdoor circle time with show-and-tell, games and conversations about nature and environmental stewardship; and hikes that include everything from splashing in puddles and searching for bugs and flowers to enjoying the shore along Grapevine Lake, playing on a tree swing and petting horses the children might pass along the trail.
“Every week we continue building on stewardship, sense of place and encouraging curiosity, and I think being on a weekly schedule helps our kids explore very confidently,” explains Hannah Nyquist, Southlake’s outdoor experience programs coordinator.
Animal Friends Here and Afar
Children at Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Preschool attend five days a week. The curriculum begins with an investigation of social and emotional topics inspired by backyard animals—such as birds, worms, snails, ladybugs and butterflies. Preschool takes place in outdoor environments, such as the nature-rich playground, forest and meadow areas, and Monarch Mountain, a habitat restoration pollinator garden.
“In these outdoor areas, we invite the children to participate in literacy, construction, dramatic play, loose-parts play [with objects that can be manipulated] and art centers to expand the investigation and build pre-academic skills,” says Katie Grimes, Dallas Zoo’s early childhood manager.
“At least once a week, we extend our investigation to a global perspective when we visit the habitat areas of the zoo. This experience allows us to see how universal concepts that include family, homes, nutrition and communication play out in different ways across animal species around the world.”
The program was everything Hoffman wanted for Adelaide, who is now 5 years old and has been a Wild Earth Preschool student for two years. “I think I may have even cried tears of relief when I read the family handbook,” Hoffman says. “So many academic skills are taught organically at a nature-based preschool. There are no math worksheets; instead, worms are counted, and piles of rocks are split into equal parts.”
There are other practical benefits: learning to put on their outdoor gear by themselves, wash their hands when needed, interact with other students and listen to teachers. There’s also a focus on conservation and care for living things.
“We operate with the idea that the nature center is a home to many plants and animals, and we’re just the visitors,” Nyquist explains of the teaching kids to hold animals gently and not pick flowers and plants. “In instances where a bug does get held a little too tight or a beautiful flower is too much of a tease, we never shame. We talk about how accidents happen and how we can grow to be even better stewards next time.”
Growing and changing through nature play
Outdoor learning and nature play are more appealing than ever, both as adults seek ways to unplug their kids from mindless screen time and as COVID-19 drags on. Grimes says some parents have told her that if it wasn’t for the outdoor preschool environment, they would not have felt comfortable in a group care situation. And Nyquist says since classes resumed after a pandemic-induced break, Cross Timbers Forest Preschool enrollment has been near capacity.
The experience has proven transformative for many kids. “We had the little girl who was afraid of bugs and didn’t want to get dirty,” says Southlake resident Michelle Gordon. Since 4-year-old Ava began attending Cross Timbers Forest Preschool, “we have seen a big change. The fact that she will sit and dig in the dirt and has become more welcoming of different insects—most of the time!—has been great.”
Even children who have always gravitated toward the outdoors grow and change in significant ways, says the Dallas Zoo’s Grimes. “When children first start with us, we see them tentatively climb up to balance on a short rock or log; when they leave they are often walking on that log backwards or with their eyes closed, they are walking long distances without undue fatigue, and they are seeking new physical challenges. The physical activity and sensory integration that they get through nature play prepare them for a lifetime of healthy habits.”
Here are eight nature-focused preschools to explore in Dallas-Fort Worth:
Bob Jones Nature Center’s Cross Timbers Forest Preschool, Southlake
Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Preschool, Dallas
Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s Museum School, Fort Worth
Ages: 3–6 (up to age 8 for summer classes)
Fort Worth Zoo Preschool and Nature’s Navigators, Fort Worth
Ages: 3–5 (preschool), 4–5 (Nature’s Navigators)
Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary’s Preschool Nature Explorers, McKinney
River Legacy Nature School, Arlington
Ages: 3–6 (if not enrolled in kindergarten)
817/860.6752, ext. 105; riverlegacy.org/nature-school
Tinkergarten, multiple locations
Ages: 18 months–8 years
Top image courtesy of Dallas Zoo