In the Triangle, some students trade classrooms for nature

Students Ben Miller, left, and Olivia Kwiatkowski play in a wooden hut on October 20, 2016 at Learning Outside in Chapel Hill.
Students Ben Miller, left, and Olivia Kwiatkowski play in a wooden hut on October 20, 2016 at Learning Outside in Chapel Hill.

When kindergarten students arrive at Learning Outside each morning, they are prepared for a day of outdoor adventures.

They harvest vegetables in a garden, hunt for buried treasure in a pile of loose wood chips, “cook” in a makeshift open-air kitchen and feed chickens and goats.

They tromp through the woods on a mid-morning hike, listening for bird calls and looking for fairies. They sing and play instruments in a circle. If it’s chilly, they may build a fire.

“We operate on a nature-based model that lets children learn in a natural environment, which is predisposed to meeting their needs,” said Wendy Banning, director of Learning Outside, a nonprofit outdoor education program in Chapel Hill that opened in 2009. “They are inspired and inquisitive, and they love to observe and investigate. An outdoor setting is tailored to their learning style.”

Nature-based learning facilities for children have been popular for years in Europe and are now cropping up across the United States and in the Triangle. The Kinder Garden Preschool in Raleigh is an “outdoor discovery preschool” for children ages 3 to 5. Sun Star Family Farm in Apex plans to expand its program next fall to include kindergarten.

Some education advocates say getting kids outside more often can reduce their risk of obesity, strengthen their immune systems and calm students with attention disorders.

Another benefit, some say, is higher test scores.

“One of the issues that’s confronting the U.S. is that children are not getting outside enough,” said Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative at N.C. State University. The initiative partners with schools, child care centers and other facilities to design outdoor play areas and promote the natural environment.

In 2012, the Natural Learning Initiative launched Preventing Obesity by Design, a six-year program in which dozens of Wake County child care centers are getting help with training and playground design.

Moore and others from the initiative have worked to enlarge outdoor play areas, add plants, trees and gardens, build walking paths and incorporate features such as an outdoor stage for performances.

‘Amazing natural world’

Located on more than 200 acres at Triangle Land Conservancy’s Irvin Nature Preserve in Chapel Hill, Learning Outside offers kindergarten, after-school nature clubs, summer camps and volunteer opportunities for children of all ages.

All the programs are outdoors, regardless of what the weather is like. Nearly 500 children participate, and 100 of them receive scholarships.

“We have this amazing natural world and we all need to be caretakers of it,” Banning said. “Children are the future of this world. They’re going to be the future custodians of nature, and in order to be good stewards, they first need to have a relationship with nature.”

Some Wake County public schools focus more than others on outdoor learning. But every Wake school has some type of outdoor play area, and some have outdoor learning spaces, said spokesman Michael Yarbrough.

At Farmington Woods Elementary School in Cary, students harvest vegetables such as zucchini and squash from a garden and witness the life cycle of a butterfly in a butterfly garden. They learn about composting, soil and other aspects of nature in class before visiting the gardens to see the process take place in person.

“If they can actually be involved, they’re seeing things happen and asking questions,” said Anna Goodrum, magnet coordinator at Farmington Woods. “That’s much better than reading it in a book.”

Going home tired

At Kinder Garden Preschool on Ray Road in Raleigh, children spend time tending an organic garden, playing in a forest and making mud pies.

“The children really enjoy being outside, where they can learn about things in person,” said Mary Kingsley, director and primary teacher at the school. “Also, it helps them to not be fearful of the outdoors.”

Kingsley’s love of nature and the need she saw for an outdoor learning program in the Triangle led her to create Kinder Garden, which opened with three students in the fall of 2014. This year, she has more than 11 students.

“The kids go home tired, happy and dirty,” she said.

At Learning Outside, kindergarten students gather in a circle at the end of the day and pass a “talking stick” around to share their favorite part of the day.

“Mine was seeing this snail!” said student Soren Perrachon.

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler