- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2015

KIMBERTON, Pa. (AP) - On a cool, dewy morning, the little pupils pulled on rain pants, boots, mittens, and wool hats before heading outside to their playground: an apple and pear orchard with a stone bridge, trees for climbing, a small log cabin, and a large sandpit.

Later, the weather would take a turn toward May with a day of near-record warmth. But no matter what the atmosphere brings, when icy winter winds blow or cold rain falls - barring anything outright dangerous - these kids will spend their mornings outside as part of a new all-outdoor kindergarten at the Kimberton Waldorf School.

The playground was just the first stop of a morning that would revolve around nature and wildlife, from petting the school’s goats and calf, to helping clear out their secret garden in a tucked-away forest on the school’s pastoral 30-acre Chester County campus.

Many schools have gardens or animals to teach children about the wonders of nature, but Kimberton Waldorf is among a handful in this country to go a step further by holding kindergarten outdoors from 8 a.m. to noon, rain or shine, for the five little pioneers who signed up for the program.

Annual tuition runs from $9,400 for four half-days to $17,075 for five full days. (The afternoon is a traditional indoor program.)

So far, children and parents seem enthralled with the open-air version, which is popular in Europe, where it began several years ago, but is just taking hold here. The Kimberton program began in September.

“I absolutely love it, and he loves it very much,” said Tamarah Smith, an educational psychologist and mother of Jonathan Dyer, 4½. “We have seen his imagination just explode since September.”

She and others argue that essential to children’s development are free play and exploration, which can suffer in a traditional kindergarten setting, packed full of scheduled activities, such as morning meeting, readers’ workshop, lunch, and, just maybe, a 20-minute recess. And did we mention homework?

Kimberton Waldorf is one of more than 150 North American Waldorf schools, based on the teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. They emphasize the arts and the natural world, and don’t begin formal, traditional reading instruction until second grade. Steiner began by teaching the children of employees at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919.

At Kimberton, elementary students don’t use computers, and parents are urged to control their children’s exposure to media. All students spend about 45 minutes a day outside, rain or shine.

“Nature is healing,” said Kevin Hughes, dean of the school, who had looked at two outdoor, or forest programs as they’re also called, at Waldorf schools in New York and New Hampshire. “It has a kind of calming quality. For children today who don’t spend much time outdoors, this is something that’s beneficial and needed.”

Various academic studies have documented the potential academic value of children spending time outdoors. For example, a University of Illinois study of children with attention-deficit disorder who played outside regularly had milder symptoms.

The Kimberton children’s classroom is a 450-foot roped-off area of the forest that they, their parents, and their teachers, Eileen O’Meacham and Candy Neely, have been clearing to make paths and space for a sturdy lean-to made with branches and covered with a tarp; a tepee with mini log chairs; two hammocks; and soon, they hope, a donated yurt.

For toys, the children use a tree stump as a jet ski or motorcycle, pile atop an upside-down wheelbarrow, and make mud pies from gobs of clay that seep from the ground. Or sometimes they find a secret nook next to a log and rest in a pile of leaves.

On this day, the group gathered sticks for the fire pit, listened to a story with handmade puppets in their lean-to, then scattered to play while O’Meacham and Neely swept leaves from the paths.

“Being out here, there’s no agenda, no pressure to get to music at 8. And Eileen is so patient and loving and gentle,” said Neely, who is the assistant teacher. O’Meacham, who sings to the children, plays the recorder when she wants them to follow her Pied Piper-style, and makes her own felt puppets, called this her “dream job.”

She said she worked in a conventional kindergarten before coming to the Waldorf school, which her own three children attend. The biggest difference she can see: “All kids come to school with wonder. The methods that Waldorf uses I feel lets us hold on to that wonder a little longer.”

It’s hard not to watch their rosy-cheeked faces light up with joy as they pet Lucy the calf and giggle when she nibbles their teacher’s coat, or as they climb across logs that could be castle ramparts or pluck apples from a tree for their snack.

And, yes, sometimes they get boo-boos, but in their trusty Red Flyer wagon they bring along a first-aid kit. And O’Meacham said she was teaching students outdoor skills such as how to fall by having them roll in a pile of leaves. There has been one case of poison ivy, and on the day a visitor was there, one boy got pushed into a sticker bush and cried until O’Meacham scooped him up.

She said she does worry about injuries, but “I feel just as many things can happen indoors.”

Although there are only a few in the United States, such kindergarten programs are increasingly common in Scandinavia and other European countries like Germany and Austria. In this country, some nature centers and botanical gardens offer preschool outdoor nature classes.

Hughes said he decided last spring to start the program but wasn’t sure until the week before school started if it would have enough students.

With the help of parent and even grandparent volunteers, this band of explorers has been setting up a “base camp” little by little.

Neely, who is also an occupational therapist, said she sees the children developing pre-reading skills such as hand movements, fine motor coordination, visual perception - all from playing and exploring their outdoor classroom.

As the morning winds down, the children eat lunch and head back to school for a nap, although once they get their yurt that will be the resting place. All that outdoor playtime comes with a big bonus:

They eat every bit of their lunches, said their teacher, then all fall soundly asleep.

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Online:

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com

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