A new preschool opening this fall basing itself in the Arnold Arboretum is aiming to be the first licensed outdoor preschool in Boston. That's right -- the arboretum will be the students' classroom!
"The best part about spending time in nature is that you never know what you'll find; at many schools all the lessons are pre-planned by the teacher, but in nature there's that sense of wonder when you see something unexpected or amazing," said Sarah Besse, co-founder of the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network (BOPN). "In nature, the teachers' role is not to 'deliver' pre-planned lessons, but rather to learn and explore with the children. Us teachers will follow the children's own interests, and help them how to go about finding answers to their own questions."
BOPN's "classrooms" will primarily be in the Arnold Arboretum, and the students will have a great say in where the "classroom" is every day. One day it may be searching for monarch butterflies at Peters Hill, or another day it may be looking at the blooming roses (don't touch the thorns!), and seasonal lesson plans will include learning how each plants designs its seeds to be dispersed in the fall.
To be clear, BOPN and the Arnold Arboretum are two totally separate organizations, and BOPN has the support of the Arnold Arboretum.
"We have many educational groups that use our collections and grounds and we are delighted when these groups choose to reach out to us," said Stephen Schneider, Director of Operations and Public Engagement for the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, to Jamaica Plain News.
The school's curriculum also savvily utilizes the Arboretum's environment for its lessons.
"In our culture plants are often seen as passive, but at our preschool we will explore how plants play an active role in the ecosystem," said Besse. "The more children know about plants, the more they're amazed at everything they do each day, which leads to a desire to conserve and protect them -- and that compliments the educational mission of the Arboretum."
While the majority of school will take place in the Arboretum, in the instances of severe weather, there is indoor classroom space available at the First Church (6 Eliot St.), said Besse.
"BOPN's philosophy has children learning outdoors regardless of weather. To keep our children warm and dry, we combine the right clothing with a play-based curriculum that keeps children moving while helping them to develop perseverance," says BOPN's FAQ webpage. "When children are outside every day, their body-awareness and self-regulation skills develop quickly. We are well-equipped with plenty of extra clothing, hand and toe warmers, large thermoses of warm water, first aid kits, and all the necessities for each type of weather throughout the seasons."
Children will also learn the basics commonly taught in preschool such as math and reading, social interaction, and more.
For Besse, and her fellow co-founders, Sara Murray and Shela Sinelien, knowing they wanted to create an outdoor preschool was due their teaching experiences.
"The shift in my personal educational philosophy began in the summer of 2016 when I attended a screening of the movie 'The Land' at the Boston Children’s Museum. This movie is a documentary about an adventure playground in Wales and explores the nature and benefits of risky play," said Murray, who has been teaching first grade at the Brimmer and May school for several years. "I was intrigued by this focus on child-directed play, risky play, and providing opportunities for play in nature. For the past three years, I have read books and articles and attended conferences and workshops on nature-based play to educate myself about how and why these opportunities are important for children and their development."
Bessie said her “ah-ha moment” was observing at Grow Bloom and Thrive in Millis, MA, which is a forest kindergarten and the first preschool of its kind to become certified by the Department of Early Education and Care in Massachusetts. Besse is also inspired by the nonprofit Tiny Trees, which has 12 outdoor preschool classrooms in Seattle city parks. Bessie believes forest preschools are the missing link in education, and a movement whose time is now.
The school is keeping a 6 to 1 ratio of students to teacher, and Sinelien is going to be on maternity leave for six months, so there can be 12 students at a time with Besse and Murray.
Presently, the school is offering half-day sessions, and hope to offer full-day in the future. They're still trying to figure out how to provide full-day, an important goal for BOPN, and are open to collaborating with other preschools and community organizations, said Besse.
Like many preschools, BOPN also mixes in songs and chants into its curriculum. And the before-snack chant seems to ring true for the school's founders as they begin their walk down a new path.
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you thank you for everything.
Click here for more information about the Boston Outdoor Preschool Network.