"These programs feel subversive — pedagogies outside the United States’ educational norms. As such, most of these “forest kindergarten” or “nature preschool” programs are private...and expensive."
Episode #104: Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice. Williams founded New America's Dual Language Learners National Work Group in 2014. Before joining New America, Williams taught first grade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Connor recently wrote in an article: "Which raises an unwelcome possibility: absent a shift in early access to the outdoors, the country will be able to add nature deficits to the many inequities already plaguing American childhood, things like resource inequities and academic achievement gaps. Somehow, someway, time exploring outside — the freest possible resource — will become a marker of privilege."
Obviously a love of being outdoors, obviously the kind of gross and fine motor skill development of going out and playing, those are huge benefits. And I almost feel like I should just stop there just say it, right? Just pause, because those are great. But there are other things.
Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Conor, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.
Hey, thanks for having me.
So Conor is a senior researcher in New America's education policy program. And we have Conor on the show today to talk to us about nature, outdoor play and access to nature and the outdoors in early-childhood education. So Conor, I'd like to start the conversation with the question of why we're talking about outdoor play in nature. Why is this something that's worth our time talking about and having a dialogue around?
Sure. Well, I'm glad we're having a dialogue. The reason I think it's coming up in the early ed. world, and frankly in the broader elementary and secondary education world now, is there is a lot of parental nostalgia, this sense that in a fast-paced global economy – or fill in your buzz words, right? – a high-stress, high-strain moment of economic anxiety or something like that, that we've been pushing really hard to invent ways to make our education system more skill-based, more direct, more aligned to employment and careers and getting kids into postsecondary education.
I think there's a sense on the part of a lot of families and a lot of parents that something’s lost in this sort of high-octane approach to education. So you add that sort of nostalgia for… and I think, honestly, true or false – I don't know to what degree it’s accurate – but there's this sense that we ought to be spending more time outdoors. We ought to have more time outdoors with our kids. And also that I think a lot of parents are facing down the increasing use of media and technology in childhood and feeling like they might not be as comfortable with that as they could be, right? Too much screen time, or screen time in a way that it seems like it's not beneficial for kids. I think that there's a lot of that going on.
Cool. And so there's I think some more obvious benefits of children spending time outside, like fitness and health and getting around, running around, which is great. But is there other benefits that may not be so obvious?
Sure. So this has actually been the coolest thing – I wrote this piece for The Atlantic, right, about outdoor pre-[kindergarten]. The coolest thing has been watching the different responders to it on the Internet. There are a lot of people who are kind of like me: They're left-wing progressive somehow, liberal somehow, love to be in the woods, enjoy the outdoors and think, “Yeah, that's where my kids should be, too.” But there's a number of people who are also who’ve shared it out, who’ve been really excited about this article who are hunting and fishing types. They wear camo everywhere. I've gotten a lot of feedback from libertarians and conservatives and just a variety of people who care about this.
And I think that's partly because of, as you say, there are so many benefits. Obviously a love of the outdoors obviously the kind of gross and fine motor skill development of going out and playing, those are huge benefits. And I feel like I should stop there and just say it, right? Just pause, because those are great. But there are other things.
The most staggering thing that I found that was doing some research on this was watching at one of the outdoor early-education centers that I visited, watching these two boys fight. They were rolling around, there was, like, monster truck tires and various other what they call loose parts in this little playground space that they had – big, open stuff that they could grab and pile up and use for whatever they want to. These guys were wrestling in a woodpile. They couldn't have been more than five years old. They’re wrestling around and they're hitting each other and they're rolling around and the whole time they're giggling.
Now, I taught first grade in a traditional public school setting and found that… I'm watching this thinking, “I know exactly how this ends, with, like, a bloody nose or a black eye, or even before that just like somebody screaming and getting mad and going to the teacher to complain.” And it was amazing, I watched them go for 20 minutes. And no hyperbole, the whole time it was just nothing but hilarious. They thought this was so funny that they were wrestling around.
And the best part about it then was, you go home and you read the research and find out that conflict resolution is another one of these sorts of things that if you leave kids the space to get into arguments and get into fights and get into disputes and then get over them themselves, [it] turns out they get better at it.
There's so many other things like this. It's early days in some of the research, but we have some recent suggestions that it helps kids develop better focus and attention span. When you're out in the woods, when you're out in nature there's a sort of more symbiotic relationship of developing your attention and getting used to looking at something and really pouring into it for a while. So there's evidence that is a real benefit.
And in sort of one level deeper there's some suggestions that it can help with sensory development, meaning that kids aren't hit with so much artificial noise when they're outside, they're not bombarded with as much stimulation, and so they sort of develop a more natural and appropriate way. Some people argue – and I think the research on this is more speculative than firm – but some people argue this contributes to lots of developmental issues that kids have. If they're growing up in high-noise pollution areas or in high-stimulation areas that it messes not only with their attention but with their actual sensory development.
Yeah, it's interesting, and it makes sense if you think about that. And in the word you use, “space”, I think really is a big part of the information that I've read that's come from both yourself and others in terms of a lot of the benefits with nature specifically, but early-education generally, is just giving kids space is going to help them with things like focus and managing risk if they're outside and making their own decisions. So it's a very interesting conversation.
And so one of the challenges though that you've spoken a little bit about is accessibility to outdoor play and nature. Can we talk a little bit about that? And I guess to start off with, why do you think that access to the outdoors in nature is a challenge? I guess sort of on the surface you would think it's pretty easy for an early-childhood education, early-childcare program to just go to the park or something like that.
Sure. Yeah, some of it is just straight geography– if you're not near woods you can't get into the woods very easily. And that's simple and difficult. And of course given the way that poverty is distributed – certainly in the United States, and I think in Canada as well – a lot of it happens to be in urban centers where children who are growing up in low-income families can just be living in communities where there isn't a great deal of wild, open space for them to get into it. But of course then that begs a bunch of questions: What is it exactly about being outdoors that's good for kids? Is it, on the one hand, something magical about being in the woods where there are no roads or where there's no Wi-Fi, where there's no cell phone service or something like that?
Or are the benefits of being outside really actually the benefits of having unstructured playtime? And I think that an open research question that we probably can't fully answer right now. What I would say, though, is that there is something really screwy about the degree to which something that's free, right? It doesn't cost you anything to go walk out your front door and be outside, how that somehow access to a curated outdoor experience – be it in a wild forest or be it in a carefully designed, loose-parts playground or what have you – that somehow these “free” things are actually becoming a marker of privilege.
So there are other reasons. I mean, part of it is that a lot of the public systems that we have in the United States that are trying to improve how low-income families – how their children receive education – a lot of these systems are pretty highly regimented. So that makes it difficult for a school that has prescribed amounts of time they're supposed to be spending on subjects and prescribed subjects that they need to be assessing and prescribed curriculas they're planning to use to assess or to instruct on those subjects, it makes it hard to say, “Yeah, as a teacher I'm going to just sort of freelance this instead of using the math curricula that the district wants us to use. I'm going to wander outside and try to teach math in the playground.”
So there's definitely a part of that. And I wrote about this in the article for The Atlantic, there are these things in the United States called charter schools that allow for more flexibility within public-education funding. So schools can start to have some freedom, curricular- and hiring-wise and schedule-wise. There is one in D.C. called Mundo Verde that's trying to use the outdoors in their curricula and in a much more intentional and systematic way. But it's still very much a much more regimented and a different experience that the kids in that program are having compared to the kids in some of these private, early-care centers that I found on farms in West Virginia and in major centers in Maryland and so forth.
Yeah, it's an interesting point, actually, I never thought about that. But you're absolutely right, there's a lot of I guess standards put around programs that have more of the public funding like the curriculum and doing assessments and the administrative side that you can't really just sort of go outside for free play time. It's an interesting point.
And so I guess there seems to be a growing number of private early-childhood education programs that are more focused on the outdoors and play in nature. Are you seeing from any of the research that you've done, that these things are starting to become a little bit more prevalent.?
I don't think we know for sure, but there is a group called the Natural Start Alliance that I believe was founded out of Richard Louv’s work – he wrote the book, Last Child in the Woods. The Natural Start Alliance has been keeping track of this, at least to some degree. And it's hard to say because of course if you call up the Natural Start Alliance and say, “Hey, I'm opening a new childcare centre or a new pre-K program and it's environmentally-themed,” and they say, “Okay, great, we'll put that on our list and see there's more growth in the program,” I don't know to what degree people are going out and double-checking and saying, “Look, this is exactly… this counts as environmental pre-K or not.”
So it's not that it's quality control so much as that I don't know that we have a sharp definition of what counts as “nature-based pre-school.” But it's definitely growing, and certainly it anecdotally appears to be growing, and then Natural Start Alliance says that it's up quite a bit.
And so we talk a little bit about, “Okay, there's publicly-funded programs that have a lot of standards and curriculum that they have to follow, etc.” So I guess that has an impact on how we can encourage more nature-based outdoor play. What are other things that you think can help us encourage and implement more nature-based play in our early-education programs?
Sure. And I will say this for all of the private providers that I have worked near and interviewed and spoke with for this research they've been doing is that almost all of them will say, “We are working, we're trying to find a way to work with the local public schools, to work with local groups to get kids outside that can't afford to come on a regular basis to our private programs.” Almost everybody who is in this space seems to be a kind of evangelical and they want to proselytize, to sell the outdoors to more educators and more families and to more children.
So that's happening. Frankly it's the thing I'm trying to raise some funding to actually go study, is to find more of these examples of replication and scalability of outdoor-based or nature-based education in the public system or near the public system. Because there's a lot of non-governmental organizations that are doing this work, nonprofits that have some expertise in outdoor education who are trying to put together some kind of blended funding where they have some of their own private funding but then they do sort of outdoor experiences with the public schools.
There's definitely that happening in a variety of communities around the country. Some of them look like getting low-income kids outdoors for a week in the summer; some of them look like regular visits from naturalists with wildlife into the schools. There are a lot of ways to do these kinds of things. But it's certainly not happened systematically.
Right. And so you obviously spend quite a bit of time doing research on this subject matter. What's one of the most interesting or surprising things that you've learned through this process?
Sure. I think it has to still be that first thing that I mentioned earlier, is that I've never written anything that more people liked. I haven't gotten a single piece of angry feedback for writing this piece at the Atlantic. I've written what I thought were perfectly innocuous things. If you wrote an article tomorrow saying all kids should learn to read in elementary school, you would get at least a little bit of pushback on the internet from someone who thinks it was a terrible thing to say.
But literally nobody has been angry about this article. Nobody has written to me and said, “Wow, this is terrible. You are awful, you are a corporate sellout, you are a Marxist,” all of the various things that people yelled at me in the past. People love it. And that's what surprises me, is the degree to which – especially here in United States right now in a time when everything in our politics down to our culture to our entertainment, our economics, every part of our broader life living amongst one another is polarized right now. You're either on one side or the other, a liberal or a conservative, depending on where you shop, how you entertain yourself, how you parent etc.
But this appears to be something that hasn't been touched by that process yet. The outdoors remain completely non-controversial. I think the fascinating.
That is actually fascinating, because you're right, almost any subject matter whatsoever, you have somebody who's going to be upset about it. And even just… it's funny, just last week someone was giving advice to a crowd that I was sitting in, and that was their number-one advice, too, was if you're feeling stressed or anxious the number-one thing is get out in nature. So even for adults it seems like a universal thing, a universal truth that we all believe in, no matter whether we're on the left or right or wherever we are. So it's interesting for sure.
Okay, so Conor this has been super-interesting for me. I've learned a lot about outdoor play, spending time outdoors and the benefits of that, even to the point where were using terminology like a “nature deficit disorder” and we had to get outside. And I think, as you mentioned, one of the most fascinating things is no one's really disagreeing with that.
If I'm listening to this podcast and I want to learn more about this subject or any other research that you're doing or that New America's doing, where can I go to find out more?
Sure, so I'm on Twitter, that's where everything that I write at some point gets shared out there, and that's at @ConorPWilliams. Then New Americas website, if you go to www.NewAmerica.org you’ll be able to find the education team there, and my work is there as well. Also www.The74Million.org is the education website where I write pretty regularly. I suppose other than that it’s just Google to find my work.
Awesome. Conor, its been great having you on the show. Thanks for coming on.