Nature-based programs, including nature preschools, forest kindergartens, outdoor preschools, and similar programs, are designed for children who might not typically thrive in an indoor setting, especially children who need additional room to run, move, or yell. Yet, nature-based preschool educators tend to be the most challenged by children who exhibit “challenging behaviors” (for example, running off, aggression, hiding, or sensory needs). The concept of “fit” has been long discussed in the nature-based early education community: How do we know that our programs are a good match for certain students, and what do we do if we think they are not?
“Good Fit” Practices & Outdoor Education
What does “a good fit” mean anyway? I believe that this term is very subjective and dependent on both the capacity of the program and the program’s philosophy around behavioral guidance or “discipline.”
Perhaps “fit” is a term like “kindergarten readiness,” where we shape children to fit the system (instead of shaping the system to best serve children). Can we look more deeply into equitable practices and inclusion, and ask ourselves uncomfortable questions? Are we denying children access to an outdoor childhood because they don’t fit what’s easiest for us as educators?
The late Erin Kenny in Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way wrote about one philosophy on “fit,” which matches those of many small forest schools across the country. She writes, “I have witnessed outdoor parents who desperately want their child to embrace a program such as ours; however, their child is not a good match. They may refuse to put their hands in the dirt or cannot express their emotions without whining or crying” (37). Kenny eventually evolved her program to be more inclusive of students’ developmental and cultural realities, but the question still lingers for many families and providers: How can we help a child succeed when they have a tantrum each time their fingers get muddy?
Reasonably, we must look at the current capacity of the program to support a child’s needs. If a child needs a 1:1 aide and we cannot hire additional staff, what can we do to support the family and serve this child? Is there a developmental preschool program nearby where this child would thrive more? If we don’t have the training to support a child with special needs, how can we access the training? How can we evolve our program to be more inclusive?
It can be difficult to encounter behavior each day that jeopardizes safety. It can be especially hard to know when to draw the line when behaviors are challenging but just within teacher’s capacity. How do the dynamics of the class change when winter comes, and cold hands and bodies need almost-constant tending?
The unique additional challenges of nature-based and outdoor classrooms are an easy place to ask, “Is this just too much?” So, why should we fight so hard to keep these students in our programs?
Consequences of Expulsion
Every year, thousands of preschoolers are expelled from early learning programs, a rate that is three times that of children enrolled in Kindergarten-12th grade. These expulsions occur during the child’s most formative years.
According to the National Center on Early Childhood Health & Wellness, the impact of suspension and expulsion on preschoolers is tremendous.
Young children expelled from preschool are more likely to:
- Lose chances to learn, socialize with other children, and interact with positive adult role models.
- Miss out on chances to develop and practice the very skills they may most need, including social and emotional skills.
- Develop ongoing behavior problems leading to later school difficulty.
- Experience harmful effects on development, education, and health.
- View themselves negatively or as not capable of learning.
- Develop negative views about learning, school, teachers, and the world around them.
Families who have a child who has been expelled may:
- Lose access to a teacher or program that may have provided support to their child and family.
- Experience increased stress, including financial challenges, as they look for alternative care. Some parents may lose their jobs when a child is expelled because there are limited alternatives for other care.
- Blame themselves or their child. This can lead to harsh and less effective parenting approaches at home.
Who Gets Expelled
Additionally, expulsion tends to affect certain demographics of children more than others. This helpful video by NPR’s Cory Turner illustrates the tendency for bias around preschool behavior:
This bias has been cited by countless researchers. Dr. Dolores Stegelin (2018), of the Institute for Child Success, writes:
… racial and gender disparities are evident as early as preschool, where black students are 3.6 times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their white classmates. Additionally, while boys represent 54 percent of preschool enrollment, they constitute 79 percent of all suspended preschool children. Research indicates that a child’s early educational experiences greatly influence their development and outcomes later in life, making these data particularly consequential.
Many nature-based programs and outdoor preschools write their own rules on behavior, discipline, and expulsion. It is critical for equitable access to nature-based programs that we critically examine our policies with a lens on equity for all children and families.
Preventing Inequitable Expulsion & Displacement
Here are some recommendations on how to equitably address “fit” in outdoor & nature-based early learning settings:
- Help children participate first. Provide resources for dressing and having basic needs met (for example, what to pack for lunch, resources for families who need additional gear, etc.). Helping meet children’s basic needs helps them to be more socially and emotionally equipped for outdoor school. Consider the role of your “disciplinary” philosophy in helping children succeed.
- Consider adopting a non-expulsion policy. A non-expulsion policy reads something like this: Our school is a non-expulsion program. We believe that children have the best chance of success if they stay in school. Our educators use best practices to support children’s behavior and safety and work closely with families to support each individual child in their participation in our program.
- Create policies that formalize your commitment to equity and inclusion. The Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice Guidebook (2019) recommends that programs share detailed processes for working in earnest with families to provide for children with individualized education needs. Policies should include the specific steps that will be taken, including providing modifications or support services, before a decision is made that a child cannot participate in a program.
- Train as a staff and be willing to learn from your students. Each child has unique needs and learning abilities. Working with staff to find ways to support individual children not only helps children experiencing challenges, it grows teachers’ skills sets and offers ongoing professional development that benefits the program as a whole.
- Identify resources in the community for developmental screenings, additional supports, and consultation. There are many free resources out there for programs and families! Resources from the Seattle area that I love are the Impact Program and the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden Inclusion Toolkit.
- Educate yourself and connect to your biases. When I was directing at Tiny Trees Preschool, all of our teaching staff would start with a workshop on Implicit Bias in Preschool and begin by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. All educators should spend time examining their biases and considering how it applies to their work in schools.
The children who are being pushed out of nature-based and outdoor programs are the ones who need outdoor and nature-based education the most. Instead of deciding whether a child is a good “fit” for our programs, we should very carefully consider how we serve children and families in our communities in ways that acknowledge the barriers to participation in nature-based education and that equitably “fit” their needs instead. Perhaps it means running alongside children, even if they seem to be running away.
About the Author:
Rachel Franz (she/her) is the former Director of Education for Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle, WA. In 2019, she founded Twig & Thread Consulting, where she offers trainings and consulting around nature-based education, equity in preschool, and child-centered curricula. She is also the Screen-Free Week Outreach Coordinator for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and an advisory board member of the Washington Nature Preschool Association.
Kenny, E.K. (2013). Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Vashon, WA: Cedarsong Nature School.
National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness (2019). Understanding and eliminating expulsion in early childhood programs. Retrieved from: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/publication/understanding-eliminating-expulsion-early-childhood-programs
North American Association for Environmental Education (2019). Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice Guidebook. Washington, DC.
Stegelin, D.A. (2018). Preschool suspension and expulsion: Defining the issues. Institute for Child Success. Retrieved from: https://www.instituteforchildsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/ICS-2018-PreschoolSuspensionBrief-WEB.pdf
Zero to Three (2019). Preventing expulsion from preschool and childcare. Retrieved from: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/preventing-expulsion-from-preschool-and-child-care