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Nature-Based Preschool: Ideas for Your Classroom

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In this podcast episode, our guest Abbie Frank talks about ways to incorporate nature-based education into everyday early childhood classrooms.

More About Our Guest

Abbie Frank is founder and executive director of Bluestem Hall Nature School, a nature-based preschool in Urbana.



Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Natalie Danner: All right. Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today we are talking about Nature-Based Preschool: Ideas For Your Classroom. We’re joined by Abbie of Bluestem Hall Nature School. Abbie is the school founder and executive director of this nature-based preschool in Urbana. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Abigail Frank: Thank you.

Natalie Danner: So today we’re eager to hear from you as a leader of a nature-based school, because our listeners want to learn ways to incorporate nature-based education into everyday early childhood classrooms. So let’s get started with the basics. What is a nature-based preschool?

Abigail Frank: Thank you so much for having me on this podcast, and I agree, starting with the basics is helpful. There is a spectrum as to what is a nature-based school. Generally, it means involving the natural environment in a systematic way in your classroom. So for us, we have access to 120 acres of state protected native prairie. So we are located on the Barnhart prairie in Urbana. We also have a restored barn that we use as our school house. Some nature-based programs are strictly outdoors. Like people meet in the forest, and some have just turned their playground area into a playscape, and they’ve really tried to sort of develop that. There’s a spectrum in between.

Our nature-based program is so lucky to be on this incredible state-protected nature preserve that we’re on, and we spend about 80 percent of our time outside in the prairie. We have outdoor classrooms. We have field stations that we study in, and so for us what that means is using nature, not only as like a classroom physical space, but also as a teacher, like a co-collaborator in our educational practices.

Natalie Danner: So going back in time. Why did you decide to create a nature-based preschool?

Abigail Frank: I will say that it was partially selfish reasons, in the sense that I had a 3-year-old daughter who was approaching preschool age, and the school that I wanted for her simply did not exist in this area. So at that time I was like, well, I’m gonna make it then, because someone’s got to do this. This is so incredible, and the children of this area deserve this. So we had some of the moving parts. We had the prairie. So I live here on the Barnhart prairie, which my grandpa founded. He went to cemeteries and railroads and collected the native species and brought them back and replanted his entire farm into a prairie. So it’s an extremely mature, majestic ecosystem.

We had this restored barn that could be turned into a school house, and then I’m a seasoned business woman, and I knew how to sort of develop this business. The X factor is that I feel passionately about what’s going on in the world of education. And I say that from somebody who does not have an education degree, which I think has both helped me look at it from a different perspective but also my degree is in design. And so the way that I looked at what I was trying to create out here with our school was almost similar to how I renovated this building is to look at the bones of what’s happening. Let’s get this. If we could take education, especially early childhood down to its skeleton, what is working here? What’s the meat of what’s going on, and what is not at all working, which is still being kind of like forced into place.

And that’s how I approached developing the philosophy and the guiding principles of our school, which is largely child-led. We do a great deal of emotional intelligence and making sure that our students feel empowered, and that we, as adults, are earning their trust. And if we earn their trust in the relationships and the dynamics just are so fluid and natural. So that’s kind of where it came from is that I had this deep core passion for what happened in my own education, even as a teenager I was like, why is so much of this the way it is? And just advocating for what I wanted my child to have.

Natalie Danner: And you talk a little bit about curiosity, like your curiosity as a team. Your curiosity that you want to kinda like promote for your own child, too. But what are some of the other benefits to nature-based early childhood education that you’ve seen so far?

Abigail Frank: I would say one of the things that is the most incredible is a deep and lifelong sense of belonging to the natural environment. Children are totally flabbergasted by nature. Just intuitively, if you let a two year old just kind of roam around the yard, they’re going to collect sticks, they’re going to collect rocks, they’re just—it’s a wonderland. They don’t need much actually. And what happens is if that relationship between a child and the natural world does not have room to grow and cultivate, then naturally, it will probably dissipate. So I would say on that note, one of the main benefits of having a nature-based program is kind of this play space literacy that we’re always cultivating with our students.

It’s not just being like a scientist walking through the forest being like well, that’s that kind of mushroom, and that’s that kind of leaf. It’s so much deeper than that. It’s letting the children have like deep-rooted experiences with their natural world. Studying the plants, studying the seasons. Really understanding, oh, I just heard a red wing blackbird for the first time. That means spring is coming. And if I just heard that bird, then, in about two weeks, the trees are going to start to bud. Making those connections, so they just feel completely grounded in their reality. They love the insects out here. The insects are so deserving of being studied.

Natalie Danner: Insects. I was surprised by that.

Abigail Frank: Oh, the kids love the insects, and I feel like it’s like this like secret, underground, natural, like species that people totally don’t notice. The kids notice, and we study the birds. If we hear a bird call that, I can’t tell you how many 3 year olds will say, oh, well, I know exactly what bird that is that’s passing by. So we do a lot of play space literacy, so that the children have a total understanding of the world that they’re living in here. The Midwest has an incredible access to the natural environment. We also have a lot of access to like agricultural environment, which are borderline. But I think what happens is people are so used to just kind of seeing these like vast open spaces that they become quite disconnected and untethered. But when you start to zoom in on the different levels of your own place and you feel connected to the species around you, it’s just, I don’t know you just feel so much more at home.

Natalie Danner: So when you were talking earlier about 80% of your day is outside, typically for the classroom. What does that typical day look like in your nature-based preschool?

Abigail Frank: Yeah. So we have half an hour for drop off in the morning because trying to get a child of this age group to a place at a specific time, it’s just setting everybody up to fail. So we have a half an hour, and what happens is our families arrive, and they will go inside and get checked in and get their child to the bathroom, because once we leave the building to go into the prairie, like we all have to be on kind of the same page, and dress their child for the day, depending on what the weather is up to.

And then we will meet in our playground, our nature playscape area, and this is a really critical part of our day. The families will get a chance to socialize with each other, and they have unfettered access to our teacher for questions, and this has become one of the most beautiful parts of our school is that we were finding parents who were transitioning from other schools that it was like a drive by, drop off. Like scoot your kid out of the car. They didn’t know the teacher. They didn’t know the other families. They didn’t know anything going on throughout the day.

We are not interested in keeping the families at arms distance as much as drawing them in. So we have this open time where it’s like a whole community meeting every morning, and the parents absolutely love each other. Sometimes we have to shoo them along. And by sometimes, I mean every day. And so, and then we start our day with a morning meeting with the students, a morning song, and any morning announcements. The kids will have an opportunity to speak up. They can say something like “my dog hurt her tail last night” or “I had soup for lunch yesterday,” you know, whatever they want to share, and it’s always very charming. And we’ll have, and then we have an opportunity for the students to just kind of like bump elbows and get situated for the day, which is really critical for this age group.

At that point on Mondays, our director of education, Morgan, sends out the adventure plan. And this is sort of how we structure our week is we develop loose adventure plans. Morgan has a masters in education, so they are definitely based in a very thoughtful system of how we’d like to teach our children and students. But we do not assign days or amounts of time. If something on the list doesn’t get checked off, that’s totally okay. It might scoot back to the following week, it might just get eliminated, that’s no big deal. So we use these adventure plans to then draw from for the first chunk of our day, and at that point we might go to one of our field stations. We have a field station in the hedgerow tree line, which is just the most magical place on the entire property. We have this long path along the hedgerows, with the classrooms carved out at the end, where we have an old boat. You can imagine how much fun that is.

We also have another field station that has a little trail that goes into spruce trees where we have climbing straps that go up into the trees. It’s this beautiful canopy, and then we have the prairie. So we’ve got a few different kind of ecological spots. So a couple of examples of what an adventure plan might look like is, we might have one that says, compare deciduous trees to evergreen trees. So it’s very loose like that, in the sense that, we almost don’t need it to be too strict and structured, because the children will just kind of bounce off of what we’re doing right away, and Morgan will set up the activity and the lesson.

Another example is have a debate about an environmental or social topic. So she might present a topic, and then the students may have a debate on that. They may learn to take a vote on that. They’ll discuss like what that means for each other. Or last week they did break open different nuts and use our senses to investigate. And typically this just gives the total amount of like meat that they need for the morning. And at that point then we will have this activity, and we don’t require the students to join the activity. I did want to say, because if they are having their own study, if we make it over to the spruce trees, and somebody found that there’s like a really sticky spot with sap and they are having their own total investigation, we don’t prioritize like the activity that we’re offering them over what they have discovered on their own. So we’re very respectful about that.

Nine out of ten of the times they will gather around Morgan quietly, because they know something cool is about to happen. You know there’s no reason to like for a child of this age group to come sit and listen if their interest is totally somewhere else. That’s more important. At that point we will have rest time. So we have outdoor naps. Not every day. This has a smaller temperature range than other times. But, we just had an outdoor nap a few days ago, and it’s December and they stay bundled up. They have blankets and little cots, and we read stories and listen to a song or two. And this is so critical because they will tell you that they don’t need a little break. But then they are all so peacefully laying there and just resting and regulating their bodies, which is really, really crucial.

We have a lunch, and then after lunch, we take one of the lessons from the morning, or we introduce a new one, and we go deeper into the investigations. And so it’s kind of like a deeper level of exploration. There have been days where all the plans get thrown out the window. Because, for example, there was one day when it rained a ton and the building was surrounded by worms that gave us everything we needed for the entire day. We developed a worm crew. We talked about worms. Why do the worms get flooded out of the soil? Are we helping them by putting them back? We went around, and we collected every worm and put them back in the soil and just talked about worms the entire day, and that’s, I mean. So we always give ourselves the freedom to kind of toss the plans out the window and then, at the end of the day we have the same half an hour for parent pickup so people have some flexibility. And again, that’s just like a big social community time for everybody, and the kids often don’t want to go. It takes some coaxing.

Natalie Danner: Oh, that is a very full day, and I was excited to learn about the nap time outside. I haven’t heard of that before, but I like the idea of it.

Abigail Frank: Yeah, especially if there’s some warm sun.

Natalie Danner: Yeah. So talking about napping outdoors but also thinking about temperatures in Illinois. How does a nature-based preschool work in extreme temperatures like the cold winters or the hot summers we have?

Abigail Frank: We are not extremists. So we spend time outside, but it’s not something where, if people start to vocalize any discomfort, that we’re just going to push through, so we have a range of safety that we go off of. Under 20 degrees, we start to calculate the other conditions. Really under about 45 degrees. We calculate the conditions. So, for example, today is, I think about 35, it’s wet and rainy, so we started inside.

Our building is like a state-of-the-art magic house. It is glorious. So I would say our backup plan to start with is incredible. But that being said, about under 20 degrees, we have to weigh the weather conditions. First of all, gloves can definitely not come off, so we can’t have lunch outside, and if we have snack outside, it’s got to be quick. And is it snowing sideways? Is the wind cutting through everyone’s clothes? Is it just kind of wet? But there might be a day that is 10 degrees, and the sun is warm, and the air is still and the prairie’s crunchy and like perfect, and we will go outside.

So it gets really super conditional when it starts to get cold. There may be a day that’s 45, and it just feels bone chilling and the rain is coming sideways, and no one wants to be outside. So we really just kind of go off of the weather. There’s also, when it starts to get hot, we do the same protocol. Is it 90, with like a 200-degree humidity? The range, is everybody starting to like lose energy? Then we’re just going inside. Our building is heated, and it has heat and A/C. It’s a really tight building. So it’s like this wonderful backup.

Otherwise it’s not lost on us that some of this age group is still learning how to communicate their comforts. A young 3 year old is still learning how to say, my hands are cold, my shoe got wet, I’m shivering, so we just check in a ton with them. And we’re a small program, we have small groups, and so there’s nobody who could really kind of get like overlooked upon this. But that being said, we do spend a ton of time outside, and we switch in the winter from chasing the sun to when it starts to warm up chasing shade, and we have both here on our prairie. Thankfully, because we do have tree groves.

Natalie Danner: Wow! That’s great, and it’s so great that you have that backup space, too, just in case, you know, if you have a pouring, you know, rainy day, or a blizzardy day, those kinds of things. You really need that indoor space, too. So I’m glad you have that as well.

Abigail Frank: And you know what’s funny is if we spend more than two days inside consecutively, the kids start to get squirrely, and they’re like, hey, can we please go back out? They’re very used to being outside, and we do have a firepit, and we do have a covered porch, so we have some like transition spaces as well where we’re kind of in between. Then we’ll have lunch around the fire, you know.

Natalie Danner: That sounds lovely. Lunch around the fire. I like that. So, getting to our last question here: What are some things that teachers in traditional preschools can do to incorporate some of these nature-based type instruction in their own classrooms?

Abigail Frank: I love that question, because there’s no shortage of creativity. I really think around this topic. It has to be teacher driven so somebody would probably have to have the interest themselves to sort of drive their classroom towards that direction. And there’s such a huge spectrum. So let’s just say we’re talking about like an inner city school that has no access to green space at all. They may have an outdoor area, but it’s paved, or something like that.

I would say that there’s just the simplest things of using your windows. Study the clouds every day at the same time, turn off the lights, and study the color coming in every day at the same time. Do a bird count, do a bird week. You will see birds flying by. Certainly, it may just be a couple. But what bird did we just see? There’s like little moments like that where you can sort of start to dissolve the boundaries of your classroom and what’s happening outside that I still think would be so beautiful for the students.

You could plant little seeds or flowers along the windows and study how much sunlight does this one need? Like, it’s been a really cloudy three weeks. Does that mean this one is still thriving, but this one is not doing okay. Little moments like that. There’s kind of like the middle of the spectrum, which is perhaps you are a public school. You have recess, but that’s kind of it. I would always encourage people to talk to your administrators and simply ask them, can my class go out more often? Because what if the answer is yes? And you actually do have a space you can use?

Certainly the gear required to have children safely outside in the cold weather would be a handicap, because you can’t just expect the whole classroom to suddenly have like, you know, 10 layers of gear that they’re putting on. But if the weather is temperate and you can do a leaf study, or you can just simply have time outside, or you can work with your school to develop a garden, or even better, a native, a native garden and see all of the insects that are going to suddenly find you. Really there’s so many little ways that I feel like this could just be incorporated, or at least children can be reminded of that connection.

Natalie Danner: Those are some great ideas for teachers. I love those. I can just see so many different classrooms. I mean, just thinking back to myself as a teacher. I worked in New York City. We were in a brownstone building. We had access to green space, but it was a very urban area, so some of the things we liked to do was just take kind of nature walks. We would go out with the children and walk different places because there were trees and things like that. We could identify trees. We could look at the leaves. There are many ways, I think this can be incorporated into traditional classrooms. So thanks so much for those ideas. And I want to thank you, Abbie, for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. It’s been great, and I love this conversation.

Abigail Frank: It’s been my pleasure. I’m so glad that you asked. And I want to thank you, too.

Natalie Danner: Thanks. Well, until next time. Thank you, and keep early learning at the forefront.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2023