In 2018, after teaching for 12 years at Ridge Road Elementary School in North Haven and sending her children there, Julie Mountcastle decided she had had enough.
“I was through with education. I said I wasn’t doing it anymore because of the testing. That was my whole reason,” she said.
In 2015, just three years earlier, the state was implementing the new Smarter Balanced testing required by state law. Mountcastle said the testing took away any opportunity for teachers to be creative or use their intuition. According to Montcastle, the added preparation time took away her ability to teach specialized programs well – like the Integrated Day program at Ridge Road where she taught – or send her students out for additional recess, if needed.
“In public school there are tremendous constraints, you can no longer just close your door and do what you know is right,” Mountcastle said. “Everybody has to be on page 67 on Wednesday and page 74 on Thursday…there isn’t so much to the art of teaching left.”
But as the demands on teachers and administrators increase, the results of statewide testing show that many students remain well below target, according to the Connecticut Report Card provided by the Connecticut State Department of Education.
The Smarter Balanced tests in grades 3 through 8 show that, on average, over the last five school years students only met about 60 percent of expected performance for English Language Arts and Math.
Public schools and state legislators are focused on how to get more students meeting grade level targets in reading and math, spawning recent efforts including the 2021 ‘Right to Read’ bill which requires school districts to adopt a new literacy curriculum.
For a growing number of parents, however, the new curriculums, increased testing, increased classroom instruction – especially at 3, 4 and 5 years-old — are not the right approach to solving the literacy issue.
“We have been cutting back on letting kids be kids and the academic results are not there to support it,” said Agata Dodd, a mom of three in New Haven, whose son is part of Community Nursery School’s inaugural kindergarten class.
For parents like Mountcastle and Dodd the alternative has little to do with new curriculums or more classroom instruction.
“I first started looking for an outdoor school because my gut was that there was a better way to do early childhood education,” Dodd said. “It’s a disservice to the kids who learn best through play to just sit for six hours a day at a desk.”
“There is a lot of research that links outdoor time with increased critical thinking skills, social relationship building, self-confidence and cognitive abilities such as problem solving,” said Kiah DeVona, a doctoral candidate studying outdoor education at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “It also teaches other soft skills – risk taking, getting out of your comfort zone, learning how to interact with an environment that you might not be accustomed to.”
According to DeVona, traditional schools in Europe recognize the benefits of increased outdoor play time. Unlike the typical 20 to 30 minutes students in elementary grades receive in the United States, children in Europe get 60 minutes daily.
Being outside more – hiking, jumping, climbing, balancing – also develops gross motor skills, the foundation for reading and writing, said Rachel Daniels, the director of Community Nursery School in Guilford where preschool and kindergarten students are educated completely outside.
“What’s interesting for me is that there are a lot of misconceptions about what kindergarten readiness means. People are hyper focused on the academic portion at these early ages,” Daniels said. “Developing gross motor skills has to happen before fine motor skills. Pencil grasp comes last. Parents and educators feel a lot of urgency for kids to get there before they might really be ready.”
In addition to soft skill and gross motor development, increased outdoor time for students might be an aid in achievement simply because it allows them to get their energy out and then focus better when they are in the classroom, DeVona said.. If students have more time to move and play, they might be able to focus better when they’re actually in the classroom.
An explosion of nature-based education
Mountcastle originally thought she would never teach again, after leaving Ridge Road Elementary School, until she met Jennifer Staple-Clark and learned about the Slate School, which was just opening, a school that planned to combine growing trends of nature-based and curiosity-driven education for preschool, elementary and high school students.
Children at the Slate School spend two hours every day outdoors – playing, exploring and learning.
“We explore topics all together and then everybody has passions that they explore and we all teach each other,” said Mountcastle, who now serves as Head of School at the Slate School in North Haven. “It’s a real privilege to have a school where everyone is a learner.”
According to Daniels, the nature school programs adhere to common core standards, but unlike traditional school models the activities used to reach those standards are flexible and picked by the students.
“Children become interested in what’s around them and then the teacher scaffolds the learning after that,” she said. “The older nature school classes found animal tracks at the beginning of the year and that has turned into the teachers using that area of interest to drive the curriculum. She brought in field guides, books. They cast the animal tracks out on the field, cleaned them off, and tried to figure out what animal they belong to.”
Similar to Mountcastle, the kindergarten teacher at Community Nursery School was a public elementary school teacher for 17 years.
“She is like the students, she is not looking to teach in ways that might not be best for children,” Daniels said. “We want to use non-traditional ways that help children grow and learn.”
Daniels said parents, like Dodd, are seeking more time outdoors and the individualized education that is only possible in small learning environments such as their six person kindergarten class.
“The number one reason that parents send their children was that parents weren’t ready for their child to be in a traditional classroom setting with really limited time outside,” Daniels said.
According to Staple Clark, the founder and executive director of the Slate School, families are currently driving up to 50 minutes each way to provide their children with this type of education.
In 2010, there were few nature-based schools in the United States. Today, there are an estimated 800 nature-based preschools across the country according to the National Association of Environmental Education.
As of 2022, there are more than 20 nature-based preschools and kindergartens in Connecticut alone, including Community Nursery School in Guilford, Westbrook Nature School and Peter Pratt School in New Milford. And every school reported a waitlist for participation in their programs.
Some of these nature-based schools – including the Slate School in North Haven and Steward Outdoor School in Ivoryton and – are carrying nature-based learning beyond preschool and offering education outdoors to older students. Steward Outdoor School teaches through eighth grade and Slate School offers kindergarten through sixth-grade instruction, with an upper school currently under construction.
Barriers to outdoor education
Despite the claimed benefits of outdoor education, the feasibility of offering a nature-based curriculum at most of Connecticut’s public elementary schools is dubious, at best.
“If you don’t like being outside, getting cold, getting wet, then you might not be a fan of outdoor education,” Devona said. “The question is, do you value the benefits of outdoor education? Are we willing to adjust our lifestyles to seek those benefits?”
In Connecticut, there are several affluent districts able to offer outdoor learning enrichment, in part because they have not just the will, but the finances and personnel to make it happen, DeVona said.
“If you don’t have access to a spot where you can take kids outside, if you don’t have enough personnel to watch 40 kids outside, if you don’t have financial resources to update your curricula it’s not going to happen,” DeVona said.
Unlike public schools, nature-based schools are situated on large plots of land – 40 acres in the case of Slate School – or are located near nature preserves and open space. They have class sizes of 10 students or less. They charge tuition of $10,000 to $20,000 per year.
“The accessibility and the cost are the hardest parts of choosing the nature-based school,” Dodd, who drives more than 20 minutes each way to drop her son off, said. “These programs are private. It’s a sacrifice on our end to put that in the budget.”
And for most families, even with financial aid to bring down the cost, the opportunities for outdoor education still aren’t available, because there just aren’t enough open spots.
“Our greatest challenge is that we don’t have enough space for all the kids who want to be here,” said Jennifer Staple-Clark, the founder and executive director of The Slate School.
The Slate School currently has 10 kids per grade in the lower school and plans to enroll 15 kids per grade in the upper school when it opens in fall 2024.
“We are fully enrolled for kindergarten through sixth grade, we couldn’t take anyone new. Unless someone moves or leaves we won’t be able to take anyone new,” Staple-Clark said.