Island Preschool Builds Confidence with Outdoor Play

Hello from North Haven!

My daughter and I climbed the hill behind our house the other day. It’s not very high at all, but the way up is studded with jagged chunks of basalt – rotten rock, we call it, tree roots, and blackened circles marking burn piles of winters past. It used to be covered with spruce saplings, but my husband and a friend of ours cleared it a few years ago. We haven’t figured out how to landscape it, but it’s a good little climb.

My daughter picked her own way up the hill, stepping carefully over piles of deer poop and avoiding rocks slippery with moss. As recently as last fall, she wanted a hand to hold or to be carried over the more rugged parts. But a few months of walks through the woods with her preschool friends and teachers have made her a confident and enthusiastic hiker.

When I was pregnant with Penrose, way back in 2013 – 2014, there wasn’t a daily program for kids under 3. Luckily, she was born during a little island baby boom, and Waterman’s Community Center recognized the need for a preschool for the young offspring of working parents. When she was one, she started attending the Little Urchins program at Laugh and Learn Preschool, first a few mornings a week, and now every weekday, with afternoon care four days a week.

The program has evolved over the two years she’s been enrolled, After a fundraiser last spring, the school bought Muddy Buddy suits for every student, and their commitment to getting the kids outdoors ¬†for a substantial part of every day really took off. Now, rain or shine, through snow and mud, the kids dig, climb, walk, roll and play, sometimes in their unique backyard playground, and sometimes on long walks through a generous neighbor’s field and woods. Like a parade of DE-VO fans in their yellow and red jumpsuits, they navigate uneven terrain and help each other solve problem in an authentic way.

Penrose (or is it DE-VO?) in the woods with a stick. Photo courtesy of Laugh and Learn Preschool, used with permission.

Getting kids outdoors for unstructured play has quantifiable benefits as far as good health, attention and resilience, but it seems to be frought with controversy. Keeping kids from getting hurt, a lack of all-weather gear, and a disproportionate focus on pre-literacy can keep kids indoors, and we’re certainly luckier than most with our access to fields and trails. I couldn’t be more grateful for Penrose’s teachers and their willingness to brave every variety of Maine weather (barring the most torrential rain or dangerously cold temperatures).

I’ve seen the benefits in my own daughter. Her teachers have told me how timidly she walked through the woods at first, looking for a hand to hold, just like at home, and how she now strides confidently over roots and through puddles, working with her classmates to strategize a path over a fallen tree.

I see the benefits in Penrose’s day-to-day activities too. She climbs up into her tall bed, using her trundle as a foothold, and scales down every morning. She takes pride in her independence and athleticism, showing me how quickly she can run and how hard she can throw a ball. She loves to dig in dirt and sand and wade through puddles, the deeper and muddier the better. She’s beginning to understand the interconnectedness of plants and animals, sunshine and rain.

The day after Pen and I scaled the hill, she went back out with her father to take some photographs. From the kitchen I watched her carefully and confidently find her footing as she headed back up to the top, and continued on the path into the woods, her purple coat disappearing behind a screen of juniper and spruce.

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to kveller.com, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for reformjudaism.org, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!