Nature Preschool Benefits Young Minds: 

Nature Preschool Benefits Young Minds 

by Thomas P Caldwell

Originally published in the Newfound Landing

When children are inside, objects, become a tug-of-war, but, when they're outside they make their own toys."

That is but one of the benefits Jenne Walker sees in Heart Centered Multi-Age's Nature Preschool that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Slim Baker Area for Outdoor Recreation.

The program which got underway in September, introduces three-year-old children to the natural world, allowing them to explore and learn about the outdoors while also building physical and social skills.  Based on the Montessori method of child centered education, the Nature Preschool also addresses what Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods." termed "nature deficit disorder" -- the increasingly limited amount of time children experience the outdoors.

Nature Preschool offers a "mobile classroom" that has children spending time at an outdoor play area, walking along the trails surrounding the Slim Baker Lodge, and doing art projects that draw upon nature.  Older children from the kindergarten class join the younger ones to offer peer guidance and experience the satisfaction of helping the younger ones.

The teachers lead the classes based on the interest of the children, introducing "pieces of academics" as they fit into the child's individual progress.

"We emphasize sitting in a group with friends and working together for a well-rounded education." Walker said.

Jennifer MacDoanld, who has operated Heart Centered Multi-Age as a private kindergarten in downtown Bristol since 2011 and added preschool in 2013, conceived of an outdoors component last January.  Walker, whose son was attending kindergarten there, and who was assisting at Squam Lakes Association, in Holderness, says   she loved the idea of an outdoors classroom so much that she went home and wrote up a proposal that night.  While MacDonald had been thinking of the class as a future goal, Walker pressed her to start the program this year.

When MacDonald discussed her ideas with the preschool's board of directors in March, director Dorcas Gordon, who also serves on the board of the Slim Baker Foundation, suggested holding the class at the lodge.  When the proposal went before the Slim Baker directors, they applauded the idea.  MacDonald and her team fleshed out the plan over the summer and the first class took place on Sept. 6.

A team of teacher oversees the classes.  Joining Waker is Kasha Beznoska, who formerly worked at Red Oak Montessori School in Franklin and operates Growing With Yoga, a program that focuses on children.  Deanna Pellegrino, a registered nurse who makes artisan jewelry, focuses on art at the Thursday sessions.  Shirley LaRoche, known as "Gram" is a key player who volunteers to help out wherever needed.

Empathy and self-regulation skills are important, Beznoska said, and she includes a yoga and mindfulfulness component to the classes.

It is a fun program, and I feel I'm learning a lot from them," Beznoska said.

The children also gain a sense of calm during the circle time, when they sing a welcoming song that recognizes each child by name.  They enjoy snacks and exercise together.

The "welcome back" play area, where they start the day, is a clearing with a fire pit and stick structure where they are free to run and jump and play games.  Beznoska said the children know it's their space, and they make it their own.  Their behavior evolves from playing with a few select children to interacting with everyone in the group.


Heart Centered Multi-Age opened its doors in 2011 on Pleasant Street, and in the fall of 2014, the private school moved to its current location on Central Square.

While operating the school MacDonald, a former public school teacher, has continued her professional development focusing on nature-based and place-based education.

"Through yearly classes and workshops held at Antioch University in Keene, my passion for outdoor education has grown." MacDonald said.  "There is a movement in New Hampshire of educators who feel the best place for children is outside and current evidence and research supports our beliefs."

"Classroom teachers will tell you that there are more and more children present in their classrooms with emotional and behavioral concerns than ever before.  I strongly believe that children must play and learn to regulate their bodies before they can be successful in the modern-day classroom."

According to MacDonald, nature schools allow children to learn in a stimulating, enriching, and calming environment.

"Watching children balance on boulders, assess risk, and be compassionate for the child playing and exploring next to them strengthens our belief that our Nature Preschool is providing our community's children with exactly what they need to have future school success and a deep appreciation for the natural world." she said.

When a child displays anger or sadness the teacher is there to help cope with those emotions.  

"Why are you sad?" she asks, getting the child to articulate the problem, and guiding the child to recognize what's wrong.  'It's okay to be mad, because everyone gets mad sometimes."

Then she asks the child to practice the "Peaceful Pause" -taking three breaths in and out, and repeating, "I am calm, I am strong, I am kind, I am a good friend."

Nature Preschool is a natural extension of the kindergarten program MacDonald established in 2011.

"I wanted to give kids more time in the day to learn through their senses and not be so focused on preparing for the tests." MacDonald said at the time.  " I saw a need."  "I wanted to provide kids a place where it was a little more calm and they could learn what they're interested in."


The Nature Preschool's first class in 30-degree weather proved to be a challenge for students and teachers.  While the children disembarking from the van on Oct. 25 immediately ran to their play area, and ran back to greet each new child arriving in a parent's vehicle, the chill wind soon proved to be too much for some of them.

First there was sadness.  The mittens were not keeping little hands warm enough.  Then there was a display of jealousy.  More than one child wanted to sit with the teacher or be held.

And there was pure unhappiness.  The coats and hats where not enough to ward off the chill.

For a while the teachers were successful in refocusing the children's attention to exercises that would keep them warm, or on activities like identifying what they had experienced that morning -- snowflakes, falling leaves, wind -- and  talk about things they were going to do -- visiting an open field where they would be able to run and play. But, as one child's crying led to another to become unhappy, it was clear a change in plan was necessary.  They retreated to the warmth of the lodge to play with paper and markers and do other activities.

"It's a growing program, where we adapt to what works best." said Walker.

They talk a lot about safety and risks during the outdoor sessions.  Part of Louv's criticism of the indoor classroom is that teachers and parents have been striving to eliminate all risks but, in the process, deprived children of imaginative play.  The Nature Preschool allows children to use sticks and rocks as imaginary toys, but the teachers keep a close eye on them as they play.

"There's a lot of education of the little brain," Walker said.  "We emphasize that they always have to be able to see us, and we have to see them.  We teach them that there are bad clothing choices, not bad weather."

"It will be interesting to watch these same children negotiate winter in February," MacDonald commented.  "The right gear makes all the difference!"

A volunteer has knit mittens for those who have forgotten theirs and the teachers encourage parents to send along additional layers of clothing to keep the students warm.

Along with the natural items the woods provide for inspiration, the preschool places books and markers outside for the children's creative use.

It's not all free play.  The school plans activities to develop their cognitive skills, with a focus on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.  They help the children develop physical skills through fine and gross motor play and building with their hands.

There also is a spiritual focus, developing a sense of unity between themselves and the natural world.

Pellegrino said, simply being outside accomplishes a lot.

"It's a simple idea," she said, "but it's important to use our imagination and get lost in play."  

It also promotes special awareness, Pellegrino said.

"They need to move their bodies in order to grow their minds," Walker agreed.