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Colorado is the 2nd state to approve licenses for outdoor preschools

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What if your kid's preschool was in the forest? Colorado is now the second state after Washington to approve licenses for outdoor preschools. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin reports.

JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Two kids amble down a trail through prairie grasslands, joining their preschool classmates under a shady tree. They're welcomed with their wild names.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Good morning, Rabbit Brush. Good morning, Rabbit Brush.

BRUNDIN: It seems like a typical preschool. There's story time...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It sits on a leaf and nibbles the flower that starts to...

BRUNDIN: ...Painting outside...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Bunny time and grasshoppers.

BRUNDIN: ...And singing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Tree root soil and nematodes, too.

BRUNDIN: But these 2- to 6-year-olds sing about things like mycelium and nematodes. And their preschool takes place entirely outside near a wetland in Denver. It's one of about 45 outdoor preschools in the state. They're currently operating with a licensing exemption, but a new state law will soon craft a special license for them. That means that lower-income families could tap into Colorado's universal pre-K program and get up to 30 free hours at outdoor preschools. Kat Owens is the preschool's director.

KAT OWENS: We're fully aware that a lot of these programs are more expensive. They're private. They're not able to access public money. This type of education should be available to more families across the state.

BRUNDIN: Nature schools are expensive to run and not very diverse, but they're growing in popularity, with a handful of other states considering licenses.

OLIVER: We cannot go past the boundary.

BRUNDIN: Oliver shows me the rope on a creek's shoreline that kids can't go past.

OLIVER: Under the mud, if you take your shoes off, we have these things.

BRUNDIN: He points.

OLIVER: They're called crawdads.

BRUNDIN: The kids are observant. They examine pieces of wood and rocks. They measure sticks and blades of grass. A number of studies have shown faster cognitive development in children attending outdoor preschools and better motor coordination, even boosted immune systems. Math and learning new vocabulary happen organically here.

JESS WHITNEY: If you had three prickly pear in your leg...

BRUNDIN: Teacher Jess Whitney sits with a couple of girls under a tree.

WHITNEY: ...And Miss Kat came and picked one out and Miss Jess came and picked one out and Mr. Jon came and picked one out, how many prickly pear are left in your leg?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: None.

WHITNEY: None. Zero.

BRUNDIN: Whitney says there are a lot of early readers in this class.

WHITNEY: Because they're out here with the inspiration that nature kind of allows them to open to more and more things. It opens their curiosity a lot further than the white walls of a classroom would.

BRUNDIN: But the main goal is letting kids choose how they want to play and explore. Teachers are guides, helping kids connect with their environment and relate to their friends. Studies also show improved mental well-being and confidence in kids who learn outside. Teacher Jon Worthing says nature provides space - literally space - to fully feel and process emotions.

JON WORTHING: The feel of the dirt. You can listen to a creek sound. You hear the birds. There's a lot of things that you can clue into to kind of reregulate yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

BRUNDIN: Parent Reeves Macdonald volunteered recently and was struck by how, given the space and freedom, kids will use any setting outside to share and play and learn.

REEVES MACDONALD: And then, as a result, they have a deep sense of independence.

BRUNDIN: He hopes learning outside can soon be available to a broader group of children.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Brundin.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Ooh, a dead crawdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT SAXTON'S "SEABIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenny Brundin
[Copyright 2024 CPR News]