Class in session, outside: The power of outdoor education.

Outdoor preschools encompass more than playing. They’re about building forts, or watching turtles sun themselves; they’re about using nature to learn.

Courtesy of Shela Sinelien
Shela Sinelien and her children, Kesllah (left) and Jaeden, go apple picking in Stow, Massachusetts. Ms. Sinelien helped found a network of outdoor preschools in the Boston area.

Until she was 9, Shela Sinelien did not know outdoor education was anything out of the ordinary. 

While she was growing up in Haiti, that’s just where learning happened. Partly, that was the curriculum. She remembers learning how to milk cows. But her school in Haiti also just saw education differently – even for traditional subjects. How many sticks do you need to build this fort? That was math. How steep is the hillside we just ran up? That was science. The fields and forests of Haiti were her classroom.

Then she moved to the United States and all that came to an abrupt end. In urban Boston, outside was someplace tired parents sent their kids to play. But the outdoors? Nature? They seemed as far away as Haiti itself. When she asked a teacher why this had to be, the answer was, “We have to learn inside. We don’t have a choice.”

In this week’s cover story, Jacob Baynham writes about the nature gap – how access to the outdoors remains a predominantly white phenomenon in the U.S., for a variety of reasons. Ms. Sinelien has seen the problem firsthand – and has literally made it her job to solve.

I know Ms. Sinelien because she is a co-founder and a director at the outdoor preschool network where my wife teaches. And first, let me say: Yes, outdoor preschools are a thing. It means the kids are outdoors the whole school day, every day. Even in winter. Even in rain. (My wife can confirm preschoolers love mud.)

For Ms. Sinelien, outdoor preschools are something more. She still lives in Boston, and she takes flyers to her church, translated into Creole, and sells the benefits of getting out into nature for communities of color. Mothers’ first question, she says, is always: “Why should I pay you to have my kid play outside?”

But outdoor preschools aren’t about asphalt or play structures; they’re about building forts, running down hills, or watching turtles sun themselves in spring ponds. They’re about using nature to learn, and once her neighbors get it, Ms. Sinelien says, “it’s phenomenal. There’s a hunger for it.”

Ms. Sinelien has seen the benefits of nature – and not just in her own life. 

When working with children with disabilities as a graduate student, Ms. Sinelien noted that when the children were outside, “they were a lot more alive. And we could teach any subject we wanted when we were outside.”

The lessons of Haiti are still dear to her. Her preschool network has set up scholarships for children of color in an attempt to get more into nature. And one of the network’s sites is at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston – not far from where she grew up in a small apartment that didn’t even have a backyard.

“A lack of caring for nature would push someone to take nature for granted,” she says. The pandemic lockdowns have shown everyone how important getting out into nature is, she adds. “We have to do our best to make it accessible.”

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