Forest Hill Nature Preschool has programs that give kids a chance to be kids again. (Bryna Zumer / BSMG)
A little rain doesn't faze the Forest Hill Nature Preschool – or even a week full of gray, rainy days that left much of the region drenched and kept most people inside.
On one such thoroughly rainy day, the kids at the Bynum Road preschool were busy enjoying the great outdoors. Equipped with tiny rain boots and raincoats, the 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds were jumping in puddles, playing in mud, finding rocks in the school's playground or even irrigating water.
"Let's see who can make the biggest splash," announced a teacher leading a bouncy group of children in a waterlogged sandbox, urging them to jump high in the puddles.
One preschooler, 4-year-old Lilly Spicknall, said she liked swinging and painting at the school, explaining she once painted a flower.
Also, "I like to play in the mud," Lilly added with a smile before scampering off, yelling to a friend: "Harper, let's go jump in puddles!"
For the preschool's enthusiastic director, Lavonne Taylor, it was just another day of letting the kids appreciate whatever Mother Nature has to offer.
"It's not raining that hard right now, it's very, very lightly raining, and jumping in puddles, unfortunately, is one of those things that kids don't get to do anymore," a smiling Taylor explained from inside the colorful school building. "They don't get to jump in puddles, they don't get to pick up mud, so we encourage all of that; that's part of our program. The parents know we have piles of extra clothes in boxes; we just bring them in and change them."
Following the Reggio Emilia approach to preschool education and striving to use all parts of the school's property, Taylor offers children not just a nature-based playground but school animals, an environmentally-friendly curriculum and, most spectacularly, a "classroom" in the nearby woods that features a "story walk," a wooden stage for plays and yoga, fairy gardens and a trail that leads to a small waterfall in a creek.
Harford County Public Schools has been awarded a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity Partnership Grant Program for a Digital Conversion Initiative in five Aberdeen area schools that will focus on blending digital and traditional learning in reading, English and language arts.
In its fourth year, the school has 100 children enrolled and a waiting list, growing from an original 20 children to 40 by the end of the first year, Taylor said.
Before taking over the Bynum Road building (previously The Learning Garden and Potters Prep), Taylor, who is 43 and lives near the school, was briefly a first-grade teacher at Joppatowne Elementary School.
"I moved from first to pre-K at Joppatowne and then I ended up moving. I had some disagreements with the county; it was just very heavy on testing," Taylor explained. She then spent 11 years at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, working as preschool director and teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School on Harford Road.
It was a small program but "we actually outgrew our building," Taylor said, noting she was interested at St. Francis, as well as in Forest Hill, in letting kids be out in nature. At St. Francis, her pushing to let kids be outside sometimes drew skepticism, as people wondered if it was OK for children to go in the woods.
"It's just trees," Taylor said she told them.
"I think that the way we've approached education in America right now, there's so much stress and pressure, and we have this very testing-based educational system, and so we're putting all these outcomes from lower and lower and lower [grades]," Taylor said. "So you have, basically, an entire first-grade curriculum happening in a kindergarten classroom, an entire kindergarten curriculum happening in a preschool classroom. But the preschoolers are still 4 and 5 years old. They're not ready. They're not ready to sit down and write; it's not meaningful to them."
"Children at this age learn through moving and play. They're very sensory-based and they need to have interaction with their environment," she continued. "What I wanted to do when we opened this place was to have a place that really respected that about kids, that lets them play and learn through play, so we try to give them as many authentic materials as we can, we let them be outside, they have a lot of unstructured time."
Taylor's passion for outdoor education was sparked by a Nature Preschool Conference at Owings Mills' Irvine Nature Center, a regional hub for environmental education. The fifth such conference held this past summer was sold out, according to Irvine's website.
"This is a huge movement in Europe. There are a lot of fully outdoor preschools," Taylor said, noting she has one student who moved from England and whose parents were specifically looking for a nature preschool.
"Research actually shows that imaginative play is so much more powerful in predicting children's future academic success than any other kind of play, so when we have kids who are making mud pies and creating them and serving them in their own restaurant, and they are painting each other with pieces of mulch and leaves, that is super great for their problem-solving, for their cooperation; it's all the things that they're learning," Taylor said.
Whether they are helping with organic gardening – the 2-year-olds were growing pumpkins – or exploring their "Wild in the Woods" programs in the forest, Taylor's students are also being prepared for academic life.
"This approach to early childhood education is not a less academic approach, because our kids do some amazing things," Taylor said. "I imagine that when we go outside, they're going to be irrigating the water. We do that whenever it rains. We learn that water only goes downhill, so when it fills up their sandbox, we dig tunnels to irrigate the water downhill. When it fills up the space under the swings, we dig tunnels and we irrigate so it will go downhill, and the kids will tell you that 'we have to irrigate the water so we can play here.'"
The school's 17 teachers, including two of Taylor's three daughters, use an ecumenical Christian approach, with the Catholic concept of the Fruits of the Spirit as "the basis of our behavioral program," Taylor said.
But the students also learn about other cultures and religions. While learning about India, for example, students do a color run, part of the Hindu festival of Holi.
Taylor's unconventional and unstructured approach has occasionally gotten some questions, like when a neighbor was concerned she was "letting kids play in a sewer."
Reducing class sizes and securing funding for employee salary increases were the major topics of public concern during a Harford County Public Schools community town hall Thursday on the school system's fiscal 2018 budget.
At a typical school, "kids are expected to sit and do worksheets, and it's not developmentally appropriate for them, and if you are a special needs kid, you have autism or ADHD or any of those things, you absolutely cannot thrive in that situation at all. It is really, really hard," she said. "So those children come here, and what they can do is they can play. They spend two to three more times outside than in a traditional program. Actually, research has shown that, especially for autistic kids, being outside is a treatment in itself. Therapists actually prescribe outside play to parents when they have autistic kids. It's very calming for them."
"A lot of kids that we get here are coming from other programs that the parents are frustrated that the kids don't get to play outside. The kids act out and then they're labeled as behavior problems. For a while, we were getting a lot of boys particularly, because of that," Taylor said.
At the end of the day, Taylor is confident her school's exuberant approach will help kids navigate the world at large, which may be even wilder than the woods next to the preschool.