Young children’s minds are like sponges. They absorb just about everything — good and bad. Often, they pick up on things around them that we adults don’t even notice. Input from the world around them shapes young children’s lives, who they become as adults, and how they live.

Teaching a Healthy Lifestyle & Embracing Nature

That concept is reflected in Dawn Maxwell’s goal to run a preschool “… focused on living a healthy life, embracing nature and letting kids have fun.” Maxwell, a mother of four, said, “I just thought it would work. Their minds are so observant.” The Green House in Oklahoma City uses all-natural cleaners, rags instead of paper towels, eco-friendly toys, and serves only vegan, organic, gluten-free food. Whatever food is left over is recycled or composted. Dawn also teaches her students — who range in age from 3 to 6 — how to garden.

David Centola, whose daughter Clara attended The Green House, said he chose the school after exploring several other options. Ultimately, Centola picked The Green House because of its focus on teaching children about the environment. (Editor’s note, August 2019: It appears that The Green House preschool in Oklahoma City is no longer in business, but the nature-based preschool movement continues to grow.)

Growth of Nature-Based Preschools

Maxwell isn’t the only educator who believes in the benefits of learning sustainable lifestyle habits early. According to the North American Association for Environmental Education’s Natural Start Alliance, “The first nature-based preschool in the United States opened in 1966.” By 2012, there were more than 150 nature-based preschools across the country.

children holding hands and running in field

Some schools are taking basic steps towards a more environmentally friendly approach, while others have their entire curriculum based around nature. For example, Sunflower Preschool in Boulder, Colorado, teaches children about recycling, composting, and gardening. The outdoor curriculum at the school “honors the natural environment” and the staff encourages “a sense of wonder in the natural world” as well as active play and a child-directed classroom to stimulate development.

Do Parents Find the Difference Worth the Expense?

Peter J. Pizzolongo, a representative for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says that the driving force behind the trend of nature-based education is the parents. “If it is something that families value, then they’re going to seek that out. … Largely, the movement within the school is recycling, reuse and alternate use, and cutting back on a lot of using of plastics and things that are thrown away.”

With the change in focus comes a slight change in price among most of the nature-based preschools. But, for the parents who are passionate about the nature-focused practices of these preschools, the difference is worth the cost.

It is never too early to start cultivating good habits and practices in children, especially since they will someday be the stewards of the planet. Teaching them how to take care of it now will eventually lead to a cleaner, greener planet.

Editor’s note: Originally published on September 16, 2014, this article was updated in August 2019.