The popularity and presence of nature schools is growing exponentially across the nation, and the trend is catching on in the OKC metro as well. But is a nature school right for your child? We asked the directors of three local nature schools how their programs differ from traditional schools. Marked by small classroom sizes, longer lunch times, plenty of time spent outdoors and individualized curriculum, teachers in these schools seek to provide developmentally-appropriate education.
Editor’s note: Our panel included Abigail Ramirez, founder of Nature Field Creative Academy (NFCA) in Moore, Emma Yeung, founder of Little Leaf Playgarden in Oklahoma City, and Jenny Dunning, owner/founder and director of development at Keystone Adventure School
Curriculum is child-led.
At Nature Field Creative Academy, teachers first observe students in order to understand their interests and how they learn, then develop curriculum. For example, student discussions about blood and snot turned into curriculum incorporating dramatic play, math and reading related to the human body. At Keystone Adventure School, students care for barnyard animals, build structures with power tools and have a voice in everything from what they’re learning to the names of newborn animals.
“Once they understand they are are in charge, they are lifelong learners,” said Dunning. “Children are much more likely to stay with something when they are invested and feel they have a voice.”
These schools ensure students aren’t being introduced to academic concepts before they are developmentally ready.
“Parents think ‘my child should be prepared to read by kindergarten,’ but as educators we know the window for being ready to read is all the way to third grade,” said Ramirez.
The same philosophy applies to behavior.
“Kids developmentally shouldn’t be sitting for long periods of time,” said Ramirez. “Those are expectations kids aren’t able to meet; their bodies can’t do what you are asking of them.”
Unstructured play time, especially outdoors, is key to foundational learning.
Little Leaf Playgarden students spend hours playing outdoors every morning, which Yeung says allows kids to independently and confidently expand creativity through play. She sees the benefits to her students especially in their risk assessment capabilities.
“If we trust in the children, they know their own capabilities and strengths and weaknesses,” said Yeung, relating specifically to kids climbing trees. “We [should] inspire kids to trust their own instincts.”
Yeung says play is especially critical in kids’ first six to seven years, building a foundation for later academic success.
“Studies show exposure [to nature] consistently for an extended amount of time helps memory and social skills,” said Ramirez.
Dunning says the sensations kids experience through their bare feet inspires neurological organization, helping kids retain and apply what they are learning.
“It gives them an anchor and more clarity as to where they fit into world,” said Dunning. “Unstructured time and space allow for the biggest epiphanies in learning.”
Social and emotional development are as important as academics.
“Nature Field Creative Academy is helping Violet develop strong critical thinking skills, which will benefit her not only through school but throughout life. She is learning to assess and take calculated risks and how to work as a group to create solutions to problems. Most importantly, she is developing a love of learning.” – Brooke Ellison, whose daughter Violet is in kindergarten
Ramirez wants her students to gain a love of learning, stellar social skills and the ability to self advocate. Empathy, kindness and inclusion are woven in to the curriculum.
“Since the start of the school year we have noticed a shift in [Violet’s] ability to express her feelings and her anxiety drop,” said Ellison. “She now views things that were once scary to her as something she can accomplish if she tries.”
All three schools strive to develop students who aren’t afraid to fail or give wrong answers. Aubry Gragg, Keystone parent, says she’s learned her kids should “fail” as often as possible because it teaches them important lessons.
“They know it’s a process, not an outcome,” said Dunning. “They take risks, and that’s where the biggest learning happens.”
Traditional assessments don’t exist.
At NFCA, there are no report cards; rather portfolio assessments determine where a child lands developmentally and where individualized attention can be given to enhance strengths and shore up challenges.
“We feel like there is too much focus on testing in public schools,” said Ellison. “We want Violet to develop a love for learning and not just memorize test answers and sight words.”
At Keystone standardized tests are administered differently than in public school.
“It’s untimed, we have snacks for the students and we have conversations about the questions,” said Dunning. “This is a safe environment where we can really get an authentic read on the knowledge base of the child and move forward to help that child be the best version of themselves.”
Students are supported in transitioning to their next schools.
Keystone, which goes through fifth grade, provides middle school prep classes in fourth and fifth grades to get students ready for their next school setting.
“By the second semester of fifth grade, we are packing their tool belt, preparing them academically but also socially and emotionally, and helping manage their expectations,” said Dunning.
Gragg, whose oldest son Owen now attends Edmond Public Schools, has found the transition easier than anticipated.
“His confidence is mind blowing,” said Gragg. “He participates in his education, he’s not intimidated and doesn’t need me to be his voice. He asks questions and has been taught to do that in a way that’s respectful.”
Public schools making strides to incorporate nature trends
Dunning realizes not every metro student can attend a nature school as availability is limited and tuition costs aren’t feasible for every family, so she is especially thankful for the strides being made by public schools to incorporate more nature into curriculum. Ramirez feels hopeful, too, as she sees more STEAM programming, less homework and more unique seating options that allow kids to wiggle and fidget in public schools.
Nonprofit organization OKC Beautiful has developed a partnership with OKCPS Bodine and Cleveland Elementary schools to teach students about agriculture weekly. Students plan, grow, maintain and harvest fruits and vegetables using sustainable and environmentally sound gardening practices. Similarly, sixth and seventh grade students at John Rex Middle School participate in Garden Groundbreakers with the Myriad Botanical Gardens, growing food and flowers, learning about pollinators and native plants, designing urban tree illustrations and meeting local horticulture and environmental professionals.
Several Edmond Public Schools have incorporated gardening, more time outdoors and science lessons through nature, with the most recent project involving John Ross Elementary students and parent and high school student volunteers creating a monarch garden thanks to a partnership with the Oklahoma City Zoo and local master gardeners. Meadow Brook Intermediate students in Mustang grow kale, lettuce and arugula in a hydroponic tower garden, and then taste the fruits (or in this case, vegetables) of their labor.
Metro programs to help kids connect with nature:
19201 N Western Ave, Edmond; 405-216-5400
For ages preschool through 6th grade. Weekly and daily rates available. Registration begins February 2020.
301 W Reno; 405-445-7080
Weekly, monthly and seasonal programs offered for children and families.
5000 W Memorial Rd.; 405-297-1429
Children and families can enjoy guided hikes and other specialty programs.
612 NW 29th St; 405-208-8291
Afterschool programming, monthly workshops for children and adults.
For ages 6 months through 8 years. Outdoor activity-based classes at Will Rogers Gardens and Fink Park.
3400 NW 36th St; 405-297-1392
Monthly and seasonal programs offered for children and families.