Outdoor Preschool Connects Kids With the Natural World

by | Jan 2023

Preschoolers at Circle of Friends Nature Preschool.

Elizabeth Zimmerman

Crisp, cool learning.

February’s falling temperatures doesn’t mean outdoor play stops. In fact, a local learning center encourages it. The nature-based Circle of Friends Nature Preschool at Jeffers Pond Elementary in Prior Lake follows the motto, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

“Winter will be here every year, and we will always have cold days. We can choose to embrace them and have more happy days instead of dwelling on the negative,” says Annie Thoraldson, Circle of Friends Nature Preschool teacher. “While we are outside on cold days, we make sure that everyone is staying very active. Movement helps build up our body heat, keeping us warmer. We build snowmen and all sorts of snow creations, we go snowshoeing, we spend a day ice fishing on our pond and we go sledding.”

The Circle of Friends Nature Preschool option was the first nature preschool offering in the south Metro area. Thoraldson, a 10-year Nature Preschool veteran, says those involved in the program are proud to be a public preschool that offers this option for families. “We believe in the importance of making sure nature-based programs are accessible and affordable to all,” she says.

Research by University of Minnesota –Duluth professor Julie Ernst supports the importance of nature play in childhood development. Ernst’s studies show that spending time in nature increases children’s curiosity, creativity, resilience and executive functioning. In response to Ernst’s research, the university recently introduced a bachelor of applied sciences degree in childhood nature studies.

As an added benefit, teachers at Circle of Friends Nature Preschool have found that the format also meets the needs of a wide range of students. Playing and interacting in a natural environment has shown to be calming for students who might otherwise struggle in a traditional classroom setting, says Erin Metoxen, Early Learning coordinator. “It gives children a different way of learning,” she says. “Every kid should have the opportunity to at least try it.”

Before venturing outdoors during the coldest months of the year, Thoraldson says she and her colleagues check to ensure all students are dressed appropriately, noting she has a full closet full of warm gear, just in case. “On very cold days, we dress like nature ninjas,” Thoraldson says. “We only have our eyes showing. We wear neck gaiters or scarves to protect our cheeks.”

“On the coldest days, staff closely follow the National Weather Service wind chill chart and are mindful to stay outside for safe amounts of time,” Thoraldson says.

Kids playing outside.Take it Outside

Outdoor nature play or nature-based learning has many benefits, including:

  • Increased focus, imagination and creativity
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Movement and physical activity
  • Appreciation for nature

Teachers at Circle of Friends Nature Preschool encourage students to love all seasons—even winter. Here are a few simple outdoor activities to try on chilly days:

  • Try to be the only one to make footprints in the snow. Did an animal beat you to it?
  • Find “the warmest” place to play based on the direction of the wind.
  • Build little shelters using snow and found materials.

Learn more about outdoor education at education.mn.gov.

Circle of Friends Nature Preschool
5304 Westwood Drive SE, Prior Lake; 952.226.0950


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