Much has been made of Finland’s superior education system. It’s high schoolers outperform even most of their Scandinavian peers on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world. They leave the United States in the distant rearview mirror.

Yet, before they are studying math, science, and reading, Finnish students are doing something valuable for their development, something U.S. children are doing less and less: playing outside.

Research shows that time spent outside — unstructured, exploratory, and messy — is exactly what children need to develop the true core competencies needed to excel in the classroom and beyond.

In San Antonio, where high childhood obesity rates and other health concerns further complicate the educational challenges faced by families, nature-based recreational outlets are taking the lead. Through innovative play experiences and play-based learning programs, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the San Antonio Zoo, Government Canyon State Natural Area, and Cibolo Nature Center and Farm are helping kids connect to nature early, and reconnecting their parents in the process.

A Zoo School student plays in a shelter made of vegetation on the San Antonio Zoo grounds. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In addition to its structured educational programs, a nature-based “Family Adventure Garden” is a key component of the Botanical Garden’s 8-acre, $16.7 million expansion scheduled to open this spring. The play area will include climbing, scrambling, and balancing elements using logs, rocks, and other strategically placed natural elements. It helps kids build confidence to find similar opportunities in nature.

Todd Beasley, Botanical Garden director of programs, sees the gardens as a great starter experience for families to reconnect to nature. Having these opportunities embedded in the urban environment is important, he said.

“The value of these places, specifically parks, allows for a safe, unstructured landscape,” Beasley said. “What we do complements a lot of different organizations that are already out there.”

Government Canyon State Natural Area’s innovative play and learn program has recently been completed, offering an appealing introduction for families of all ages. A limestone “batcave,” stump steppers, telescopes, and a giant “spider web” for climbing will give young visitors an opportunity to engage the landscape as they work up the stamina to take on longer hikes along the trails.

The playscape was always part of the Government Canyon Master Plan, but was cut from the Texas Parks and Wildlife budget. The nonprofit Friends of Government Canyon raised $91,000 for its completion in 2015.

At the zoo and the Cibolo Nature Center preschools, the fenced “playgrounds” reflect the maturity of their 3-5-year-old managers. There’s an internal order than might not be immediately obvious to adult eyes. The Cibolo Nature Center’s yard has a canoe full of debris and a colony of box shelters. At the zoo, children created huts using tree trimmings left behind by zoo groundskeepers at the preschool’s request.

Volunteers monitor the water level of Cibolo Creek. Courtesy of Cibolo Creek Nature Center and Farm.
Volunteers monitor the water level of Cibolo Creek. Credit: Courtesy / Cibolo Creek Nature Center and Farm

While parents might fear this unstructured time would be better spent drilling ABC’s and math flash cards, research has shown that play time is essential. Within that unstructured space, children are able to develop multiple intelligences, Beasley said. As they take on the elements, they build confidence and resilience along with physical strength.

At both the zoo and Cibolo Nature Center, nature-based preschool students spend 50% of their time outside. They are encouraged to climb trees and jump in puddles.

“If the kids don’t go home wet and muddy we didn’t do our job,” Cibolo Nature Center Director of Children’s Education Stephanie Colvard said.

The rule on climbing trees, however, is that the children must be able to get in and out of the tree themselves. Teachers are there to ensure no one is seriously injured, but the kids build self-confidence as they venture further and further up the tree, overcoming nervous moments and shaking knees to reach new heights.

The student-led cultivation of curiosity continues in the classroom where both preschools utilize Montessori and Waldorf methodology. Children are allowed to work toward mastery and gently encouraged to expand their comfort zone, just like they do outside.

This balance between growth and mastery, comfort and discomfort, activates not only intellectual growth, but social and emotional growth. It’s something modern Americans have to seek out deliberately in an increasingly fragmented, insulated society.

“Developers have not done the best job designing our neighborhoods,” Beasley said. We are disconnected from nature and from each other.

Without access to nature, the original classroom for generations, more and more learning happens in artificial environments, using abstract principles. 

At the nature preschools, the outdoors become the “visual aides” for the more formal learning happening in the classroom. Both schools use the language of the scientific method to guide exploration. The zoo students visit animal habitats every day, and the Cibolo Nature Center students visit the various ecosystems within the nature center. Before they go out, both preschools encourage students to form hypotheses about what they will see. How many birds in the Hixon Bird House? What kinds of animals near the creek?

“Students here are bathed in the language of science,” San Antonio Zoo Vice President of Education Stacy McReynolds said.

Over time answers become more and more grounded in reality. There are not “millions” of birds in the Hixon Bird House, nor are there sharks anywhere at the Cibolo Nature Center. The children may be disappointed at first, but soon they are fascinated by what is there. Their appreciation for nature grows.

From students’ first day onward, Cibolo Nature School teacher Linda Charlton watches her pupils develop “caring” more than any other skill. While kids might want to stomp bugs and plants in the beginning, over time they stop to observe and comment, noticing details and taking care not to trample.

As they utilize the zoo and the Cibolo Nature Center as extensions of the classroom, preschools also encourage students to understand the difference between public space and private space. They learn where they can run free, and where they must hold onto the rope that connects them to their teachers and classmates.

The appeal of these programs is obvious. Both are operating at capacity and set to expand. The Zoo School will move into the former KIPP Esperanza campus on Tuleta Drive next door to the zoo. This will allow them to expand from 64 total students to 210. The Cibolo Nature Center preschool has plans to move into a building that will allow them to increase their enrollment as well. At current capacity it serves 34-35 students per week.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.