Teachers Barbara Bick and Dan Burr created Neptune Nature School, which adheres to a forest school philosophy, after an Alameda preschool closed its doors mid-season.
On a crisp late fall day at Crab Cove Beach in Alameda, a group of young biologists collects samples of the coastal water and counts the organisms. Others examine a dead seagull found during their beach cleanup. With further investigation, they discover plastic in its stomach, leading to a conversation about coastal conservation.
Up the beach, some in the group stop to make sandwiches — out of sand. Meanwhile, others venture off to the woods by the beach to climb a tree, gather rocks to build a home for lizards, or finger paint a picture of the migration of cormorants that just flew by.
These blissfully happy, sand-covered young scientists, explorers, environmentalists, engineers, artists, and chefs are students at Neptune Nature School, one of the East Bay’s first beach-based preschools.
Neptune follows forest school principles, meaning its students use the outdoors as their classroom 100 percent of the time, rain or shine. The idea traces its roots back to the 1830s when a German, Friedrich Froebel, combined his notion of kindergarten with a belief that children flourish with play in the outdoors.
At the beach along the coast of Alameda, these Neptune Nature School children, ages 2½ to 6 years old, are encouraged to follow their interests and imagination, learning about themselves and the world around them through playful exploration.
The idea for Neptune was born out of a love for nature as well as necessity. When an Alameda preschool closed its doors mid-season, it left many families without child care. To help the community, two of the school’s teachers, Barbara Bick and Dan Burr, offered to take the kids from the preschool out on daily adventures. This evolved into a summer camp, and one day, while these former traditional classroom teachers were peacefully sitting on a beach with a happy group of children, they thought, “Why are we not doing this every day?”
“When you take away the classroom walls and go into nature, you are more relaxed and in tune with yourself and the world around you,” said Bick. “You see the same thing happen with children as well.”
Burr had been researching forest schools, and the philosophy felt right, so in 2017, the two teachers created Neptune Nature School to serve their Alameda community. And, while Alameda doesn’t technically have a forest, it has something most other classrooms in the East Bay don’t have: miles of beautiful coastline to explore.
With a “classroom” that is based on a beach bordered by a variety of trees and plants, Neptune is able to offer children a unique hands-on opportunity to learn about coastal ecology and conservation — and an exciting discovery awaits with every tide.
“All you have to do is move a quarter mile down the shore, and you’ve got a whole new classroom,” said Burr.
Children here often see seals and recently have even spotted a humpback whale and dolphins. And the woods by the beach are a haven for wintering monarchs. Children also sometimes see endangered wildlife, which leads to important questions and learning opportunities.
One of the biggest benefits of this coastal classroom, though, may be the daily dose of “blue space,” a term used to describe areas in close vicinity to water. Numerous studies have shown the positive effect of being at the beach, and there is even a concept called “blue mind,” which is described by marine biologist and best-selling author Wallace J. Nichols as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”
Whatever you want to call it, being on the coast with a mix of blue and green space seems to have a magical effect on the kids. “Children who had behavior issues in traditional schools almost always see those issues disappear here,” said Burr.
Bick has also seen this effect. “The negative ions that come off the ocean water are so soothing. You can immediately see the impact it has on any residual emotional experiences that the children may have brought with them to school,” she said.
Mimi, now almost 5, had some anxiety when she first started Neptune, but being in nature helped her work through it. “Being outside, especially on a beach where the vast expanse of water extends all the way to the horizon, gives you space to process big feelings,” said Mimi’s mother, Michele Cushner. “There is room to move and breathe, and you can find quiet if you need to just sit and watch the waves, a bird, or the clouds. It’s easier to learn how to ground yourself.”
In addition to the beach location, another factor that contributes to Neptune’s students’ sense of happiness is the school’s child-led, play-based learning philosophy.
Rather than sticking to a schedule, Neptune follows more of a “flow,” said Burr. Much like the flow of a wave, students flow in together to have community time, and then flow out to explore in small groups where they can pursue their own interests.
Instead of teachers with structured curriculum, Neptune has “facilitators” who follow the children’s natural curiosity, stepping in to help them learn and then stepping out to let them have space to develop confidence and their imagination. To provide additional attention as well as safety, Neptune has a low adult-to-child ratio, with one facilitator for every five children versus typical classrooms, which often have ratios of 10:1 or higher.
“Our older son went to a preschool that had a highly scheduled day with a shockingly high sum of enforced sitting time. That wasn’t a great fit for our active kid, and it didn’t sit well with my desire to allow my kids to learn self regulation,” said Caitlin Keen.
“When my younger son, Ever, reached preschool age, I knew we needed something different. Neptune has taught me how much we can trust our children to learn without our dictation — and how we can actually slow them down when we dictate what they should be learning. Beyond the benefits I see developmentally, at the core I really feel as if I’ve gifted my child more of his childhood.”
Play-based learning is also key for developing body awareness and motor skills.
“It only took a handful of days to start seeing a change in our son Owen. His confidence sky-rocketed. My cautious kiddo was climbing trees, asking to go on family hikes, and his desire for knowledge was more ferocious than ever,” said Marissa Ramirez.
One day Owen, who was 4 at the time, asked his mom to watch him climb a tree. He made it halfway and then fell into the safety ropes. After some tears, he insisted on trying again, and made it all the way up. “I stared up in wonder, not at his ability to climb the tree, but wondering how these teachers had cultivated such grit in my child,” said Ramirez. “He matured so much during that one climb.”
Most importantly, the students at Neptune don’t just learn their ABCs. They practice how to be caring members of a community and learn how to cultivate a deep connection to the natural world. Out of all the lessons children learn, these might be some of the most essential to be passed onto future generations.
“Mimi has said to me, ‘Did you know that some people put plastic in the ocean?,’” recalled Cushner. “Since joining Neptune, she has definitely developed an appreciation for nature, and she talks openly about how we need to protect it. I can tell she is still working out why its preservation isn’t a priority for everyone.”
Juno, age 6, feels this connection with nature as well. “Last time we took our dog for a walk, Juno reminded me to bring doggie bags in order to clean up trash along the beach,” said the child’s mother, Cheyenne Haven. “While we were there, Juno remarked, ‘Mama, we can stop walking because we have everything we need to be happy right here. A rock to sit on and the ocean and beach to play with while the trees watch.’”
Neptune’s enrollment for summer and fall 2020 begins in January, with spots offered in order of request and rolling enrollment if space is available. Neptune is also considering running a kindergarten/transitional kindergarten program next fall.