UNITY — Ashley Morency knew right away that the Sprouts preschool program was the right fit for her daughter, Abbigail.

“She came right in and started playing,” Morency said Friday morning while watching 3-year-old Abbigail play with a worm. “She definitely loves the outdoors.”

Abbigail had a major speech delay, Morency said. She couldn’t get her words out or express herself.

Since coming to Sprouts and working with the staff there, Abbigail has overcome the delay and is now socializing with other children. On Friday, she was showing people the worm in her hand and squealing with excitement.

“It tickles!” she said while holding her hand out so her mother could see the worm.

“The kids that get to come here are just lucky,” Morency said.

Mary Mayhew, state commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, was also out in the school’s garden beds Friday morning. She said she was visiting the Sprouts program because there is value in seeing “innovative programs and models.”

“We all like to play in the dirt,” said Mayhew, who oversees the department in charge of child care in the state. “A lot of what we try to do with all of our programs is support getting information out,” so that others can learn from them. “How do we help support kids being ready to learn?”

ALNA PROGRAM INSPIRES UNITY’S

Jill Barnes, a teacher at the Sprouts program provided by Broadreach Family and Community Services and housed at Unity Elementary School, said she’s seen a number of children overcome behavioral issues after attending the nature-based preschool.

Broadreach provides a number of services to help both children and adults in Waldo and Knox counties develop skills and lead healthy lives.

In addition to Sprouts, Broadreach provides a traditional pre-K program. It also provides services to children through Youthlinks, an out-of-school program to empower youth, and prevention services for young people who are considered at-risk.

Barnes, who’s been with Broadreach for 16 years, credits the improvements in her students to the outdoors environment and the larger space the children have with the new Sprouts program.

“It’s a different pace that is child-led and centered on the child’s interest,” she said.

Broadreach started Sprouts, which serves 2-1/2- to 5-year-olds, about a year ago, said Deb Hensley, director of the early childhood program at the nonprofit.

“We had been for years wanting to do more with the outdoors,” Hensley said. “We all decided it was so important in this day and age, when the children and parents are obsessed with technology, that we balance it out.”

They visited Juniper Hill School in Alna, which follows the place-based education model – learning that is rooted in the local environment – and uses nature to teach its children.

Hensley said they were skeptical of the program before they went and that they worried about how difficult it would be to recreate. But once they saw it firsthand and learned from those at the program that it was really about “gear and committing,” they decided to run a pilot program.

Now, 16 children and six staff members are involved in the Unity program, as well as 26 children at the location in Belfast. About 50 percent of the children have special needs, so Sprouts receives some state funding.

The rest of the money comes from tuition, which is $170 per week for five days of care, and any grants the organization can win.

The children spend at least four hours outside every day, rain or shine. They wear Muddy Buddy rainsuits that look like miniature hazmat suits in bad weather, Hensley said.

The teachers required a change in mindset. Instead of using typical plastic equipment for an activity, Barnes said, they would think about what they could use in nature instead.

‘LIKE NIGHT AND DAY’

Forest kindergartens, where children spend all of their time outdoors, started in Europe decades ago.

The first nature-based preschool was started in 1967 in New Canaan, Connecticut, according to Patti Bailie, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Maine at Farmington. In the United States, nature-based preschools, which spend a portion of their time outdoors, are more popular than forest kindergartens.

By one estimate, there are now about 180 nature-based preschools in the country, she said.

“It’s been amazing to see the growth of the programs and of the interest,” said Bailie, who founded the Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2003.

The growing interest makes sense, she said, when looking at the research on the benefits of letting children learn in nature.

“Nature is a good vehicle for children,” Bailie said, where they can develop physically, cognitively and emotionally.

Children in nature-based programs tend to have better developed motor skills, be more confident and engaged, and be better at solving problems.

Some studies show that taking a walk outside can reduce the symptoms of attention deficit disorder as much as taking medications in some cases, she said.

The outdoors is also good for brain development, 85 percent of which occurs during the preschool years, according to Bailie. Exercise, multisensory experiences and working out problems can all help develop the brain.

Bailie said that she would love to see more schools incorporating nature into early education, “especially because I think that schools are not made for children when you have to sit in seats all day.”

“If they’re not doing things that children really need, you see more behavior problems, you see more diagnoses of ADD,” she added.

When Hensley was asked whether she’s seen a difference in the children since switching to a nature-based model, she said she might start crying.

“It’s like night and day,” she said. “The behaviors that we see inside, they’re pretty much gone outdoors.”

MAINE TOWNS SERVE AS MODEL

There is a forest kindergarten at White Pine in York, but Hensley said she didn’t know of any other schools with programs similar to Juniper Hill and Sprouts.

Bailie could think of a few that were starting up in southern Maine, but not many in central or western Maine, she said, although there are a number of conferences throughout the state on the topic each year.

“In our area, I think there’s more interest, I think it’s starting to happen,” she said.

Bailie is hoping to push the university’s child care center on campus toward a nature-based model, and she wishes other universities would include it in their coursework so teachers would be more prepared to work at nature-based schools.