Monday, June 18, 2018

Outdoor preschool: a review

A Little Background

I say it constantly but it always bears repeating: our older daughter is a force of nature. She is vibrant, and wild, and athletic, and riotous, and chaotic. All the baby books I read were so completely, totally wrong about what my kid needed that I had to ignore pretty much all of the "expert" advice because, apparently, those experts have never met a kid like mine. We tried dozens of different sleep methods that all promised we could get our child to sleep well. (Ha!) We've tried at least as many routines and methods of discipline. In the end, she does what she wants regardless of consequences. Some days, I feel like I might as well bash my head against the wall as try to direct or control her because she listens to me so little, and cares less for my opinion or thoughts.

It took us a long time, but we finally realized that our kid thrives on chaos. Everyone ever who has studied kids will say that they need order and structure to feel secure. In some ways this may be true for ours (she can count on meals and snacks at roughly the same time each day, bedtime at around the same time, and all of that) but the times when she is the best behaved for us tend to be the times when everything is in disorder. Thirteen people over for Christmas? She's an angel! Giant crowds? Loves them! Noise, light, distractions? Her favorite things!

She has never yet stuck to any consistent schedule. Sometimes we put her in bed at 7:30 and she's asleep within ten minutes. Other times we put her in bed at the same time but we're tearing our hair out with frustration because she's still awake at 11:00. She likes disorder, and if there isn't any built into her life she will create it herself. It. is. exhausting. I was so, so looking forward to the start of preschool through basically all of her early years. However, I was also nervous about it. Was she going to have discipline problems at school? Because, well, how can any school contain such a big personality? If they're trying to create order, how will that stifle my kid who needs chaos? How will she even learn effectively?

Over a year before she was even due to start preschool I started looking into different types of schooling methods and philosophies. I thought that Montessori and Waldorf schools might be a little more promising but didn't fully buy into their methods. Then I came across an article about Germany's outdoor preschools. Holy shit, I thought, the Holy Grail of school types for my kid! I wouldn't have to worry about her being made to sit still in some small classroom with a bunch of other kids, something that would never suit her at this age. Or, probably, any age. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be confined and stifled. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be so energetic and wild that she'd get kicked out of school!

Of course, those preschools were in Germany. With a heart full of pessimism I did a search for forest preschools in the Seattle area and found two. One is on an island nearby, which was obviously out, but the other operates in quite a few parks around the city. I applied the very day I discovered it. It was a leap of faith, because we hadn't even bought our house yet and I was applying to the class in the area we were just hoping to be in. When we got accepted, we still hadn't closed on our house. It made me a little anxious to not have it all together but only mildly so. Optimism won the day, and proved correct.

The Review

This school is amazing. Each of the kids is given, out of their tuition, a pair of Grundens and a matching rain jacket. Kids who needed them also received boots. The rest of the appropriate gear for the weather--hats, warm pants and socks, gloves, mittens, etc.--have to come from the families. The preschool teachers regularly sent out emails to either remind us of different layering options or to point us in the direction of good deals to be found on children's cold weather gear.

Because yes, the kids go to school outside in all weather. There were no snow days, despite there being several days during which it snowed. There was no cancellation even on the rainiest of days. And there is also no building. The "classroom" is an area that's marked off by the park management but has almost no covering beyond what the trees provide. It is truly outdoors.

The school day itself was exactly what we needed: ordered chaos. The first half hour, during drop-off, is generally for the kids to explore on their own, within the classroom. This meant anything from reading books (the teachers did put up a very small rain cover to keep the reading area dry) to building with blocks, to climbing trees. Smashing rocks against bigger rocks was also a major activity. Essentially, the kids ran wild to burn off their beginning of the school day energy. The teachers, there were three for our class, would check up on kids who seemed to need it, whether it was because they were sad that their parents had left or were 30 feet up in a tree. "Are you okay up there? Do you need any help? Okay then. I'll just wait down here and you can tell me if you run into trouble."

After the kids had gotten out some of their initial energy the teachers would corral them into different activities. School officially started with "greeting", a song and either a conversation about something the kids were interested in or, later in the year, puppets talking about issues that were relevant to the kids. Emotions and how to handle them were, naturally, a big topic. It is, after all, preschool. We showed up a few times and some of the kids were wrestling on the ground. If they were actually fighting, rather than playing, the teachers would gently pry them apart and separate them to talk about what was going on and better ways to handle big feelings or conflicts. If it was mutual play, the teachers would keep an eye on them but not interfere.

Every day included a hike, and a snack, and big group time (often a form of tag or Simon Says, something physical but that also required the kids to either work cooperatively or to listen), and small group time. Small group time was when they worked on counting, letters and writing, patterns, things of that sort. They were learning just as much as kids do in any preschool about the "important" subjects, while also learning things like: nettles sting but plants growing nearby can help lessen the sting, moles make holes, how fast and far they can run or climb, and where to find salamanders. They learned about the life cycle of plants, they observed birds and squirrels, played in streams and mud. They learned to measure using their arms, since sticks to be played with couldn't be longer than that. (Unless it was going to be a walking stick for the hike.)

In addition to all of this, the kids were given responsibilities. The Munchkin generally thrives when given a task or chore to do (usually--she's only four) and would sometimes brag about her chore for the day. "I was the snack passer!" "I was the sweeper on our hike! I had to call [friend] to keep up with the group, and he did!" I love that the school is based around the idea of giving kids agency and treating them as responsible. It's something we try to do at home and I was happy to see this idea reinforced by the school.

The kids were able to use tools, including saws, and I've mentioned some of the other "dangerous" activities they were allowed to do. Learning to be mindful of how and when to do something--don't throw rocks when your friends are near, for example--was a huge part of the curriculum. There was also always safety equipment available. When the rock smashing became a thing, out came the safety glasses. You could smash rocks but only if you were wearing safety glasses. It's such a small thing but it really helped the kids to be mindful of all the other safety rules. Make them put on the glasses and suddenly they're telling their friends to stand back because it's not safe to be so close.

You might expect that the gender disparity would be large in such a school. After all, in a world where parents tell little girls "be careful" more than they do little boys, and where "boys will be boys" but girls are princesses, it would be safe to assume that more boys would be signed up for outdoor school than girls. So I'm really happy to say that the gender ratio only slightly favored boys. Having other tough, capable girls of her own age around was great for the Munchkin. And I love being able to talk with other moms who understand what it's like to raise a girl like mine. The kiddo isn't the only one who made friends!

However, it was a mixed age group. Kids ranged from 3 to 5 years old. Some have another year of preschool while others are starting kindergarten in the fall. This actually worked out really well, especially since some of the kids were returning from last year. They knew the drill and helped the younger kids adjust to the routine of school. In the beginning of the year they helped carry things that were too big and heavy for the smaller kids, or gave them a boost up onto the log that was just too tall. They also provided a benchmark for the younger kids to work toward, constantly striving to be just a little bit more like the bigger kids.

The only things that I disliked about preschool are mostly things that we would have disliked about any preschool. She picked up on gender stereotypes that we had, until this point, managed pretty well to shield her from. "Pink is a girl color" became a thing in our house, so we had to have conversations about what everyone important in her life has for a favorite color. Spoiler alert: she has an uncle whose favorite color is pink. We discussed the fact that a color cannot be for girls or boys because it's just a color. "Your eyes are blue. Does that mean you have boy eyes?" "No, haha! Silly Mommy!"

Our Munchkin has also never really been violent, but this year she tried out a few things. She hit me several times, her tantrums became wilder and she started kicking us occasionally during them. She also threw a book at me. (We got rid of that book as a consequence--I disliked it anyway.) I know she picked up the ideas to do these things from watching the other kids. There was a day early in the year when she got bitten by another kid. When we showed up the next morning he handed her an "I'm sorry I bit you" card that he'd made and his dad said, "Okay, let's go. We've got another one of those to deliver." (I'm not upset--in fact, that kid has become one of the Munchkin's best school buddies.) It's not surprising that kids in a school like this one would be very energetic and very physical, but I do wish this was something that our girl hadn't picked up on. Thankfully, her attempts at violence have been few and far between.

The one downside to this school that wouldn't come from an ordinary school is the amount and type of laundry. I'm so sick of opening socks that have been balled up as they were removed and being showered with sand. For quite a long time, our washing machine had gravel in it because our kid stuffed her pockets with it and didn't tell me. It took so long to remove it all. Formerly white pants are all a sort of dingy brown-gray, despite attempts at both chemical and sun bleaching. The mud was real, even with the Grundens. To keep warm enough, over the winter we had her wear multiple layers of clothing so some days we'd have: two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, two jackets, a hat, and gloves that were all either soaking wet or filthy. It adds up over five days.

Not only that, but it's hard on gear. The Munchkin lost five pairs of gloves and mittens over the course of the year. She also managed to put gashes in her XtraTufs. !!!! How does a kid even manage that? She put holes in several pairs of pants and managed to lose some of her wool socks. I would say my kid is just forgetful but I saw the Lost & Found box every day, the other kids were just as bad. Again, they're preschoolers.

But how much does it cost?

Since the preschool doesn't have a building to maintain, it actually costs far less than a traditional preschool. For five days a week, mornings only, we've been paying the full price of just shy of $700. (There are scholarships on a sliding scale for lower-income families, in an effort to make this accessible not just for rich kids. I also love that about the school!) Considering that other preschools I looked at were asking $1500-$2000, this is far more economical, even with the gear we had to buy to outfit her properly. (Goodwill, yo. And my Buy Nothing Group came through for us a few times too.) It would not be worthwhile for me to work if we had to pay for normal preschool, particularly now that we're also paying for baby care.

There are also a wider range of options for what we want the school schedule to be than a lot of schools will have. Many have either five full days a week, or three full days. That's it. Even worse, many schools don't even offer part-time care because they don't have to. Since I only work three days a week I looked into that as an option and could practically hear crickets. Preschools and daycares in the area are at such a premium that they fill up very quickly. At this school we had a wider range of options for what we wanted to do. For both this year and next, five mornings a week has been the right balance for us between school and being home, but that was one of about six different options to choose from.

The Takeaway

I assumed, at the start of the year, that the kids in such a school would pretty much all be similar in temperament to mine: adventurous, riotous, energetic. I was so pleased to see that that wasn't true, though. One of her good friends is a little boy who's much quieter than she is. We've had a few playdates and when I mentioned to his mom that he's so much quieter and more reserved than the other kids she said that she'd been hoping outdoor school would open him up a little bit more, which it had. It makes me love this style of school all the more, to know that it works well for both gregarious kids and for the shyer, quieter ones.

I figured that we would be able to meet some like-minded families, parents who didn't tell their kids not to climb so high or run so far, parents who weren't constantly reminding their kids that life is dangerous. And we did! I really like the parents as well as the kids, it was such a great group. We've met up with several families outside of school and are planning many more get-togethers this summer.

At the end of the school year, all the parents of the younger kids were trying to figure out who would be returning next year, who we could count on our kids seeing in the fall. It was gratifying to know that our Munchkin is in such high regard among her classmates, because no matter what else she is she is intensely social. She managed to befriend the shy kids as well as the outgoing ones, spanned the age gap (her November birthday might have helped, as she was sort of in between the younger kids and the older ones), played with boys and girls, and generally did a great job of befriending everyone. I'm so proud of her.

I really, really appreciated how the teachers handled the kids and any conflicts that arose. In fact, I appreciated our teachers all around. They were so patient, so kind, and so enthusiastic. They worked hard to redirect the kids when something was going sideways, something I could be better about myself, and really worked at teaching to all of the kids as individuals. I learned several tricks from them that have made life for me a bit easier. It was obvious right from the start that they are teaching outdoor school because they are passionate about nature and about the kids learning, growing, and being in nature. I cannot say enough good things about them.

We did have one minor misunderstanding with them, because they simply did not see our kid as we do. This is natural and normal, since kids behave differently for their parents than they do for just about anyone else. The teachers mentioned several times that she complained about being hungry at school, or being cold, and we explained that we did our best but mornings were often difficult with her. Getting her dressed as appropriately as we could (it took most of the year before she figured out that being warm inside the house does not mean that she will be warm outside of it) and getting her fed was sometimes just a tantrum-filled battleground. She'd take two bites of the breakfast she had asked for, then declare herself full. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, or warnings could get her to take another bite. And when it came to getting on warm clothes or rain gear, oh boy. If you've never tried to forcibly dress a 4-year-old who's resisting you in every possible way, it's quite the challenge. You'd think she has twelve hands and legs instead of the two. She'd scream at us that she didn't need rain gear when it was clearly, obviously pouring down rain outside. Making her go out on the porch to feel the temperature and check out the weather only sort of helped.

The teachers did not see the tantrums, however, because she never threw them at school. Until one of the snow days. Luckily I was home, because I got a call halfway through the morning asking me to come pick her up. "She is currently safe, but she's soaking wet and refusing to put on her jacket. I just don't think it will continue to be safe for her to be out in the cold any longer." Apparently they'd been trying to get her to put on her jacket for the better part of an hour and, despite shivering and being soaking wet, she was howling and crying and throwing an epic fit. When I picked her up the teacher looked at me and said, "I finally understand what you mean when you say that mornings are a battle." Having that mutual knowledge made life, on our end, so much easier. If she came to school with her breakfast in hand they were more understanding, and they were able to work with her on some issues so that she was better equipped to handle her emotions in the mornings.

Despite the morning fights (which have faded quite nicely toward the end of the school year), I'm amazed at how easy this year was. She sleeps better more consistently than she ever has before in her life, because she's been getting enough stimulation and activity most days. She has also matured in so many ways, and seems more self-assured. Sometimes it comes with a big helping of teenager-level sass ("I've got it, Mom!") but she's able to do so much more, and is more mindful of being careful when she needs to be. She's volunteered to help with chores around the house because she's so used to needing to help out at school. I mean, this doesn't work nearly all the time, but there are plenty of times when she'll just help out when she sees that something needs to get done. She also seems to understand better that we make her do chores not as a punishment but because we all live here so she's responsible for helping with the upkeep.

We've allowed her to do more dangerous tasks with less oversight as the year has gone on, because we know she can handle them. When she's learning things both at school and at home then it becomes more normalized. We can trust her to handle a knife since she knows the knife safety rules aren't something we're doing just to be mean but because they are important, no matter who is around. The other night, she cut up all of the broccoli for dinner, with only minor supervision from us. We were so proud of her, and she was proud of herself. As she should be! But we knew she could handle it, and part of that is because she's been handling saws and hand drills and other tools at school.

Seeing her handle these things has also helped us think of other ways that we can help her have more agency over herself and her world. Small things matter. We put a hook in the coat closet that's at her height, so she is responsible for hanging up her backpack and jacket every day. Some days this is an hour-long argument/delay because she just doesn't wanna, but she knows what's expected of her and, usually, she's pretty happy that we made the world accommodate her just a little bit better.

She's stronger in body (which did not help when we had to force clothes on her) and in her mind too. There's a certain level of learning to suck it up when you're going to be out in the cold rain all morning, so I've noticed that she complains less than she did before a lot of the time. There's less whining about certain things, more sighing acceptance. She understands, somewhat, that sometimes we have to do the hard thing, the un-fun thing, and that complaining won't get her out of it. This is huge for a small child.

One of the best things I did was to build in treats on some days. When I knew it was cold and pretty miserable, I'd try to ensure there was something fun waiting for her when we got home. Hot chocolate, or snuggling under a blanket on the couch and watching a movie. I think those little things made facing the next day more bearable and cut down on the number of days she said she didn't want to go to school. After all, most grownups use some sort of incentive to get themselves to do things they don't like or which are just harder to motivate ourselves to do. Children are no different.

I'm so glad that we found this preschool, and I'm even more excited for next year. We're off for the summer, but she's got one more year before kindergarten and I happily signed her up again. I look forward to next year even more, and I'm so excited to put what I learned this year into making next year even better.

Play of all kinds, but particularly outdoor play, is not given the pride of place in early childhood that it deserves. Kids and parents alike are increasingly divorced from nature, which is having terrible consequences. Everything from ADHD to poor vision to obesity is being linked to a lack of time spent outdoors. Forcing our kids to spend much of the day outside is a boon to their development. I'm not terribly concerned about a lack of nature time within my family, since we do spend so much time outside. Trips to the playground, time spent gardening or biking, going for walks, all mean that we spend more than the average amount of time outside. Still, more time outside is better. Humans evolved spending most of their time outside, after all. This school made all of us get more time outside since the grownups and the baby also had to participate in drop-off and pickup. Usually, pickup was at least a half-hour process of gathering gear and playing a bit more with friends on the way out of the park. On nicer days, this could stretch to an hour of extra playtime out in the fresh air. If I showed up early, Baby and I would walk around a bit. So school might have been for the Munchkin, but it was beneficial for the whole family. Can you see why I love this school?

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