I send my toddler to school outside. You should, too.


"Your son looks quite ... warm," another mother says, eyeing my 3-year-old son as we drop off his older brother at kindergarten.

I look down at Isaac, his body encased in a snowsuit, two additional insulating layers hidden beneath. "He goes to an all-outdoor preschool," I reply, but the mother is already distracted, busy waving goodbye to her child.

Isaac and I leave the elementary school and drive into the hills east of downtown Missoula. Deer lift their heads from the tall grass as we pass; turkeys congregate in the middle of the road, refusing to budge until I sound my horn. Our elevation increases, and a few early-season snowflakes begin to fall from the gray sky. I smile and silently congratulate myself on the wisdom of choosing the snowsuit.

We pull into the driveway of the Pattee Canyon Outdoor School, waving at the teacher as she turns off the electric fence that protects the chickens from nighttime predators. Isaac immediately heads for the pile of ponderosa logs stacked against the barn, his footing careful on the damp wood, even in his snow boots. I don't hover, or worry, or holler at him to "be careful," all of which I likely would've done just months ago. Isaac's skills at determining what's a risk and what isn't have been honed at this school, where knives and saws figure into the curriculum just as much as arts and crafts and the ABC's.

Emily H. Freeman

A 20-foot canvas teepee rises from the center of the lawn, providing occasional refuge from the wind or an unexpected mid-day rain shower. But most of the day is spent out in the elements. The 3- and 4-year-old students eat their snacks around an open fire, clamber over dirt and stones in lieu of a playground, and hike up into the woods behind the school, returning with souvenirs like deer bones and turkey feathers. Somehow, in the midst of all of these outdoor activities, they also manage to get a handle on the basic skills they'll need in order to start kindergarten.

Outdoor preschools have long thrived in Sweden, Germany and other parts of Western Europe, and are slowly making their way to the United States, particularly in the West. Proponents assert that students of outdoor preschools are able to focus and retain information better than children educated indoors, exhibit fewer behavioral problems, and struggle less with the constant sickness normally brought home in these early school years. These un-walled environments also help children to develop many of the so-called "non-cognitive skills" – like grit and adaptability – which educators and researchers are discovering to be strong predictors of future success, even more so than early reading or the ability to sit in a chair for an hour-long stretch.

Beyond simply believing in the philosophical underpinnings of the movement, I've witnessed its success first-hand. Isaac has thrived at his outdoor school in a way that he never did at his previous preschool — a lovely, supportive (indoor) space, where his boyish energy in the classroom was constantly being redirected, rather than applied to practical work or hands-on explorations of the natural world.

But it's not just boys who stand to benefit. A friend of mine raves about the changes she's seen in her daughter, Lola, one of Isaac's classmates. At the age where Lola was poised to enter full-bore into princess obsession, she's now playing with such abandon in the dirt that it turns her bathwater brown, and stopping her mother during walks to investigate animal tracks or scat. But perhaps most importantly, she's become more confident.

Like many of the parents at the school, Lola's mother put her daughter in the outdoor preschool as an experiment, unsure how it would turn out. The results have far exceeded her expectations.

While it's unrealistic to expect existing preschools to abandon their buildings and turn their students loose outdoors, it's not impossible for teachers to consider increasing the ratio of outdoor-to-indoor time, planning unstructured field trips to uncultivated wild spaces, and setting children free to play on land that isn't wholly tended and tamed.

Our lives in the West are inextricably linked to the outdoors, and if we want to raise intelligent stewards of the land, it makes sense to begin that relationship early. Outdoor preschools can be a great first step in that direction.

Emily H. Freeman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion
service of NewTowncarShare News. She lives and writes in 
Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The West Region Wildfire Council (www.COwildfire.org) is a regional wildfire organization that promotes wildfire adaptation, preparedness and mitigation education across Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray...
  • The Wallowa County Chieftain, has an opening for a reporter. Experience with and understanding of editorial photography also required. Journalism degree or equivalent, an understanding...
  • Seeking an energetic Organizer/Outreach Coordinator to help us conserve Arizona's public lands and shape the policies that affect them.
  • 15 hours on it, 3 years warranty, 22,5 HP, $1600 Sale price. Contact: [email protected]
  • Join us in helping to match charitable interests and passions to the needs of The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy seeks a fast learner with...
  • The Yellowstone River Field Institute is an intensive week-long field course for multimedia storytellers, working journalists, and students of journalism, offered by the Montana-based Freeflow...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Baltimore Green Space (BGS) is Baltimore's environmental land trust. We promote vibrant neighborhoods and a healthy environment through land preservation, research, and community advocacy. We...
  • Northwest Natural Resource Group seeks forester based in Seattle or Olympia area to manage our ecological forestry harvest program. Full description at nnrg.org.
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking an experienced Policy Analyst or Senior Analyst to develop and advocate for policies and mechanisms that promote the development...
  • from a beautiful log home. 20-acre private parcel in the sunny Okanogan of WA. Visit: www.juliedubois.ca/house. Inquiries: [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates is looking for a VP of Programs and Strategy to bring a strategic focus to the development of multi-faceted advocacy plans that...
  • Hiring Part/Full time for Summer Season - entry level & experienced positions. Year round employment for optimal candidates. Pay DOE.
  • Located on top of Sugarloaf Mtn. 5 mi W of downtown Colorado Springs, CO. $80,000.
  • The Draper Natural History Museum (DNHM) at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, invites applications for Curator of Natural Science. Seeking...
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...