Preschool without Walls

Preschool without wall- By Lillian Mongeau

Three-year-old Desi Sorrelgreen’s favorite thing about his preschool is “running up hills.” His classmate Stelyn Carter, 5, likes to “be quiet and listen to birds — crows, owls and chickadees,” as she put it. And for Joshua Doctorow, 4, the best part of preschool just may be the hat he loves to wear to class (black and fuzzy, with flaps that come down over his ears).

All three children are students at Fiddleheads Forest School here, where they spend four hours a day, rain or shine, in adjacent cedar grove “classrooms” nestled among the towering trees of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

The program, in its third year, is less than seven miles from Microsoft, which means some parents sit in front of computers all day inventing the digital future, while Fiddleheads children make letters out of sticks or cart rocks around in wheelbarrows.

Founded in 2012 by Kit Harrington, a certified preschool teacher, and Sarah Heller, a naturalist and science educator, Fiddleheads is part of a larger national trend that goes beyond Waldorf education, which has long emphasized outdoor play, even in inclement weather.

There’s the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Mich., founded in 2007, where children wear hats and mittens during daily outdoor sessions in the frigid winter months. At the All Friends Nature School in San Diego, which became a nature preschool in 2006, children often spend mornings making sand castles at the beach. And at the Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Lincoln, Mass., founded in 2008, children learn to feed farm animals, grow vegetables and explore the farm’s many acres of wildlife habitat.

Whether the schools are emerging in reaction to concerns that early education has become increasingly academic or simply because parents think traipsing around in the woods sounds like more fun than sitting at a desk, they are increasingly popular.

The Natural Start Alliance, founded in 2013 in response to demand from a growing number of nature preschool providers, now counts 92 schools that deliberately put nature at the heart of their programs, and where children spend a significant portion of each day outside, according to director Christy Merrick. That’s up from 20 schools in 2008, when Patti Bailie, a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, counted them as part of her doctoral research.

A typical day at Fiddleheads starts at 9 a.m., with Desi, Stelyn, Joshua and fellow students zipping up waterproof suits so they can climb on, and sometimes slip off, sopping-wet logs; create secret forts under dripping boughs of bright green, and examine squirming earthworms in grubby hands.

Students go on “listening walks” with their teachers during which they stand in a circle with their eyes closed and name the things they can hear, like wind and rain, when they don’t talk. The children also eat lunch, sing songs and occasionally squabble under the open sky and towering trees.

Desi’s mother, Judy Lackey, 34, is pleased. “It’s just a magical place,” she said. “In indoor spaces, teachers have planned everything. Here, you never know what you’re going to see.”

While the children are carefully supervised by trained teachers, the school has a choose-your-own-adventure attitude toward learning. So when students first placed one of those closely examined earthworms in an empty toy watering can during a recent visit, it prompted a conversation with a volunteer teacher, Marnie O’Sullivan, about what kind of homes earthworms might most enjoy. (Hint: not a plastic watering can.)

“We kind of just think and find what we want to do in our head, and we just do it,” Stelyn said.

There are rules, and Stelyn, one of the oldest in the class, is quick to explain them: “If we see a bug, we are careful not to step on it. If we see a pretty leaf, we pick it up and put it in our magic spot.”

Walking alone onto the park road (despite its ban on car traffic) and pretending sticks are swords are also forbidden. But such rules and a few others leave room for plenty of adventures.

There’s carting around rocks in wheelbarrows, playing at being (sword-less) pirates, examining trees split by lightning, digging in wood-chip piles to make child-size “nests,” finding an unknown seed and dubbing it a “nothing berry,” and running up and down hills. The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice,” as in, “What do you notice about this fallen log?” and “I notice mushrooms.”

“Some days we’re setting up and we hear eagles calling to each other, and we run out and look up,” Ms. Harrington said. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder.”

Or as Adele Miroite, 3, said, her little hands wrist-deep in a wood-chip pile, “I love school.”

Fiddleheads is one of at least 18 similar preschools founded in the greater Seattle area since 2005, according to a recent story in ParentMap, a local parenting magazine. And 18 apparently are not enough.

There are 51 children on Fiddleheads’ waiting list and 143 on a list for next year’s spots, Ms. Harrington said. That’s after the school more than doubled its enrollment to 50 students in two classrooms this year from about 20 in just one classroom last year. And students’ parents, to judge from a small collection picking up their children on a recent afternoon, aren’t off-the-grid types. They include lawyers, chief financial officers and television producers.

“I don’t know if we’re hitting a tipping point yet, but maybe,” said Ms. Bailie, who got her start as a teacher at an outdoor preschool program at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland. At the time, she knew of only about a half-dozen schools in the entire country trying something similar, she said. These days, she teaches a class specifically for would-be preschool teachers who aim to work outside.

Ms. Bailie thinks the pushback against standardized testing and growing concern about young children spending too much time on touch-screen devices has helped the market for outdoor schools. She also credits the best-selling 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv, which helped popularize the idea that children should spend as much time as possible in the outdoors.

Mr. Louv argues passionately in his book that children should play and explore the outdoors in the same unstructured ways their parents and their grandparents did before them.

While reducing childhood obesity (8.4 percent of American 2- to 5-year-olds are obese) by increasing physical activity is a prime argument in support of outdoor play, Mr. Louv suggests that the need goes beyond exercise. Today’s children have fundamentally lost touch with nature, he said.

“Nature deficit disorder describes the human cost of alienation from nature,” he wrote. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness, he writes.

Though they all try to address this “nature deficit disorder,” not all of the new nature preschools are quite as natural as Fiddleheads, which belongs to a type of school usually described as a “forest kindergarten,” characterized by having no indoor space other than an emergency weather shelter.

Many nature preschools, like Chippewa in Michigan, do have indoor facilities. Ms. Bailie and the Natural Start Alliance both count as nature preschools those in which students are outdoors for a significant portion of their day and in which the focus of the curriculum is the natural world.

Some preschool providers still think time indoors can be a valuable addition to an outdoor-focused day (and some children may prefer it). There’s also the practical matter of getting licensed. Many states won’t allow a school without a building to receive a license, and unlicensed schools can usually operate only for four hours a day. In fact, that’s a requirement in Washington state and it’s one of the reasons Fiddleheads is open only until 1 p.m.

Then there’s just the practical requirements of spending all that time outdoors. Children need the right clothing, which can be expensive. And even for the die-hards, sometimes it’s just not really safe to have children under 5 playing outdoors.

At Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, where it can get quite cold, the director Jill Canelli uses several overlapping sets of guidelines to determine when it is too cold, windy or icy to go outside.

If the temperature, with wind chill, is below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, for instance, the children have an indoor day. That guideline is based on an Iowa Department of Public Health publication, Ms. Canelli said. And if the local school district cancels because of snow, the preschool will usually close, too.

“Safety is first,” she said, adding that parents have asked why their children weren’t outside on a given day and she’s had to explain Iowa’s safe-temperature guidelines to them. “Children can’t learn if they’re not safe.”

Safety notwithstanding, Deborah Stipek, an education professor at Stanford University who studies early education, is not a booster of the outdoor preschool model. “I have a feeling that this is a flash-in-the-pan idea,” she said.

Professor Stipek pointed out that excellent natural materials can be provided to children indoors and that setting times when they can freely choose between activities like blocks, art projects and dress-up allows for plenty of self-determined “adventures.” And while she is a strong believer in the benefits children get by spending time outside, she is skeptical of the idea that spending the whole day outside is necessarily better.

“I don’t see benefit of being outdoors doing the same activity as you’d be doing indoors,” Professor Stipek said.

But for the administrators of Fiddleheads, the benefit of children doing the same thing outdoors that they could have done indoors is as clear as a babbling brook.

“When I taught indoors, every material had a learning goal,” Ms. Harrington said of the various items she would put out for her students to play with when she was a Montessori preschool teacher. “Here, the entire classroom is a material. Certainly, the materials we set out are that way, but this classroom has so much more to offer.”

Though there is plenty of evidence that playing outside lowers the risk of obesity, improves balance and agility, calms high-energy children, reduces stress, improves self-regulation, aids healing and soothes the soul, little research specifically on outdoor preschools has been conducted in the United States. (There is more in Scandinavia, where they are popular.)

Ms. Harrington and Ms. Heller hope to help change this by opening their school to researchers. The first study, set to start in January, will look at how much children in outdoor schools move compared to children at home or in traditional preschools. The lead researcher is Dr. Pooja Tandon, a pediatrician at the University of Washington Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Most nature preschools are private; tuition at Fiddelheads is $760 a month. But some programs, like the Chippewa Nature Center in Michigan, have begun to work with their school districts. Students in the nearby Bullock Creek School District can now attend “nature kindergarten” and even “nature first grade” at their regular public elementary school.

And a few city schools have even taken up the forest school mantra. Students at the Brooklyn New School in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn now spend every Wednesday outside in nearby Prospect Park (as long as it’s not raining).

Back in Seattle, Andrew Jay, a former Audubon Center director and nonprofit entrepreneur, thinks it’s far past time to take advantage of the low facility costs of outdoor-based programs and open them up to a broader range of families. He is planning to open nine outdoor schools based in Seattle City Parks in the next two years.

“A city park is the most democratic space” for a school, Mr. Jay said. “The nature part is amazing. But what hooked me was making it available to all.”

Mr. Jay got the official go-ahead to operate his schools on city land from the parks department in October, and now he’s trying to get approval from the city’s education department to qualify for funding as a local public preschool program.

Back at Fiddleheads, several children huddled around Stelyn, who was holding a treasure. With her blond hair trailing to the edge of her bright yellow rain jacket, she held out a “nothing berry” for all to see.

“I want to see the inside,” 4-year-old Rowan Wessels said.

“O.K., but don’t break it any more than that,” Stelyn said, pointing at a nick somebody had made with a rock.

Rowan peered closely at the soft white center of the mystery berry and exclaimed, “It looks like ice cream!”

This story was published in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Does Wage Gap Start in Kindergarden- Forbes

Does wage Gap Start in Kindergarden- Samantha Ettus

“Last week was the end of year Parent’s Day at pre-school. The teachers playfully interviewed each four year old with a few questions including: “What does your Mommy do while you are at school?” and “What does your Daddy do while you are at school?” I had a work event so my husband attended for both of us and he called me when it was over. He was disturbed.

He reported that the answers for what the dads do were almost unanimously: “Goes to work” and the answers for what the moms do during school were: “Goes to yoga. Meets her friend for lunch. Shops.”

One day later my oldest daughter’s Kindergarten yearbook arrived in the mail. It is a beautiful book with a page devoted to each child with their photos and their answer to: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I opened it to my daughter’s page first and she had written: “I want to be a builder because it is fun to build houses.” That’s my girl! I thought.

Over dinner we read aloud the other yearbook pages:

10% of the boys wanted to be President. None of the girls did. Concerned about the congressional gender gap? Start here. 

50% of the girls wanted to be artists. None of the boys did. Concerned about the wage gap? Start here.

5% of the boys wanted to be engineers. None of the girls did. My daughter asked me what an engineer is. Shame on me. Concerned about the math and science gap? Start here.

And then just this week, a Seattle librarian posted an alarming gender disparity in a children’s book series. The How to Survive Anything book for boys includes chapters such as how to “Survive in a Forest” and “Survive in a Swarm of Bees.” The girl version of this book includes “Survive a Breakout” and “Survive a BFF Fight.” And who was behind it? Scholastic, the world’ largest publisher of children’s books.

When we talk about adult incarceration rates, the discussion often ends up on risk factors in childhood. As a society, we are in agreement that these problems start early on. Those fighting crime, obesity and other long term problems know to look to childhood – when it all begins.

Though my Pre-K and Kindergarten survey was admittedly informal, the data looks grim. So isn’t it time to acknowledge that the success gap, the wage gap, the science and math gap, the ambition gap, start in childhood too? From birth our daughters are praised for looking dainty and our sons for being strong. When do our kindergarten girls go from aspiring to be princesses to aspiring to be strong, committed, passionate leaders (I.e. Superheros)?

There are some uplifting statistics and we can credit the baby boomers for many of them- 53% of new entrants in the workforce are women and women own eight million United States businesses. In this regard, the Boomers did a heck of a job.

Now it is time to do your part. Eradicating the wage gap, the ambition gap, and the science gap starts at home. The next time you walk into a toy store and are asked whether the gift is for a boy or a girl, say it doesn’t matter and buy the girl a science kit. She will enjoy it just as much as any boy will.”

Bedtime Stories for Young Brains-The New York Times

Bedtime Stories for young Brains- Perri Klass

While we know that reading to a young child is associated with good outcomes, there is only limited understanding of what the mechanism might be. Two new studies examine the unexpectedly complex interactions that happen when you put a small child on your lap and open a picture book.

Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. This brain area is “a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation,” said the lead author, Dr. John S. Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

This region of the brain is known to be very active when older children read to themselves, but Dr. Hutton notes that it also lights up when younger children are hearing stories. What was especially novel was that children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures.

“When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story,” said Dr. Hutton. “For example, ‘The frog jumped over the log.’ I’ve seen a frog before, I’ve seen a log before, what does that look like?”

The different levels of brain activation, he said, suggest that children who have more practice in developing those visual images, as they look at picture books and listen to stories, may develop skills that will help them make images and stories out of words later on.

“It helps them understand what things look like, and may help them transition to books without pictures,” he said. “It will help them later be better readers because they’ve developed that part of the brain that helps them see what is going on in the story.”

Dr. Hutton speculated that the book may also be stimulating creativity in a way that cartoons and other screen-related entertainments may not.

“When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little?” he asked. “Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.”

We know that it is important that young children hear language, and that they need to hear it from people, not from screens. Unfortunately, there are serious disparities in how much language children hear — most famously demonstrated in a Kansas study that found poor children heard millions fewer words by age 3.

But it turns out that reading to — and with — young children may amplify the language they hear more than just talking. In August, Psychological Science reported on researchers who studied the language content of picture books. They put together a selection from teacher recommendations, Amazon best sellers, and other books that parents are likely to be reading at bedtime.

In comparing the language in books to the language used by parents talking to their children, the researchers found that the picture books contained more “unique word types.”

“Books contain a more diverse set of words than child-directed speech,” said the lead author, Jessica Montag, an assistant research psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. “This would suggest that children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to are probably not hearing.”

So reading picture books with young children may mean that they hear more words, while at the same time, their brains practice creating the images associated with those words — and with the more complex sentences and rhymes that make up even simple stories.

Studies of Reach Out and Read show that participating parents read more and children’s preschool vocabularies improve when parents read more. But even as someone who is already one of the choir, I am fascinated by the ways that new research is teasing out the complexity and the underlying mechanisms of something which can seem easy, natural and, well, simple. When we bring books and reading into checkups, we help parents interact with their children and help children learn.

“I think that we’ve learned that early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids,” Dr. Hutton said. “It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

And as every parent who has read a bedtime story knows, this is all happening in the context of face-time, of skin-to-skin contact, of the hard-to-quantify but essential mix of security and comfort and ritual. It’s what makes toddlers demand the same story over and over again, and it’s the reason parents tear up (especially those of us with adult children) when we occasionally happen across a long-ago bedtime book.”

How to Talk to Little Girls- Latina Fatale

“I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home last weekend, and met her five-year-old daughter for the first time.

Little Maya was all curly brown hair, doe-like dark eyes, and adorable in her shiny pink nightgown. I wanted to squeal, “Maya, you’re so cute! Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”

But I didn’t. I squelched myself. As I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are.

What’s wrong with that? It’s our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker, isn’t it? And why not give them a sincere compliment to boost their self-esteem? Because they are so darling I just want to burst when I meet them, honestly.

Hold that thought for just a moment.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23. As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy. What’s missing? A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

That’s why I force myself to talk to little girls as follows.

“Maya,” I said, crouching down at her level, looking into her eyes, “very nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, in that trained, polite, talking-to-adults good girl voice.

“Hey, what are you reading?” I asked, a twinkle in my eyes. I love books. I’m nuts for them. I let that show.

Her eyes got bigger, and the practiced, polite facial expression gave way to genuine excitement over this topic. She paused, though, a little shy of me, a stranger.

“I LOVE books,” I said. “Do you?”

Most kids do.

“YES,” she said. “And I can read them all by myself now!”

“Wow, amazing!” I said. And it is, for a five year old. You go on with your bad self, Maya.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

“I’ll go get it! Can I read it to you?”

Purplicious was Maya’s pick and a new one to me, as Maya snuggled next to me on the sofa and proudly read aloud every word, about our heroine who loves pink but is tormented by a group of girls at school who only wear black. Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities. But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book: mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group. I told her my favorite color in the world is green, because I love nature, and she was down with that.

Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty. It’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn.

I told her that I’d just written a book, and that I hoped she’d write one too one day. She was fairly psyched about that idea. We were both sad when Maya had to go to bed, but I told her next time to choose another book and we’d read it and talk about it. Oops. That got her too amped up to sleep, and she came down from her bedroom a few times, all jazzed up.

So, one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls. One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains. One brief moment of intentional role modeling. Will my few minutes with Maya change our multibillion dollar beauty industry, reality shows that demean women, our celebrity-manic culture? No. But I did change Maya’s perspective for at least that evening.

Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.”

Word Vocabulary- The Economist

In the beginning was the word – Economist

“THE more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops.  Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background.

This observation has profound implications for policies about babies and their parents. It suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four—a favoured step among policymakers—comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home.

Mind the gap

The problem seems to be cumulative. By the time children are two, there is a six-month disparity in the language-processing skills and vocabulary of the two groups. It is easy to see how this might happen. Toddlers learn new words from their context, so the faster a child understands the words he already knows, the easier it is for him to attend to those he does not.

It is also now clear from Dr Fernald’s work that words spoken directly to a child, rather than those simply heard in the home, are what builds vocabulary. Plonking children in front of the television does not have the same effect. Neither does letting them sit at the feet of academic parents while the grown-ups converse about Plato.

The effects can be seen directly in the brain. Although it cannot yet prove that hearing speech causes the brain to grow, it would fit with existing theories of how experience shapes the brain. Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, and connections between these form at an exponentially rising rate in the first years of life. It is the pattern of these connections which determines how well the brain works, and what it learns. By the time a child is three there will be about 1,000 trillion connections in his brain, and that child’s experiences continuously determine which are strengthened and which pruned. This process, gradual and more-or-less irreversible, shapes the trajectory of the child’s life.

There are tools that can help, as well. One such is a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) device. It is like a pedometer, but keeps track of words, not steps, by analysing the speech children hear. It was originally developed as a prop for research, but parents kept asking for the data it recorded and researchers thus realised it could also serve as a spur. Parents use it to monitor, and improve, their patterns of speech, much as a pedometer-wearing couch potato might try to reach 10,000 steps a day, say.

Parents are taught to make the words they serve up more enriching. For example, instead of telling a child, “Put your shoes on,” one might say instead, “It is time to go out. What do we have to do?”

That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the gap in much earlier development that Dr Fernald, Dr Noble, Dr Suskind and others have identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.”