Published: Nov. 5, 2021 By

Drop by Megan Patterson’s Denver preschool, Worldmind, on any given day, and you’ll probably see a few children climbing trees. Others will be sorting pine needles, clambering around on a jumble of boulders and digging in the mud. Come winter, the action switches to making snow angels and playing with shovels. When it rains, you might see them mucking around for worms or splashing in puddles. 

But one thing is constant: The kids won’t be sitting around indoors — and they’ll be thrilled about it.

Thanks to Patterson’s (Comm’05) efforts, many more Colorado kids might soon have access to this kind of school day.

Worldmind, which holds preschool in Denver’s City Park and adjacent sites year-round, is an outdoor, nature-based school where the kids only head inside to their space at Denver Museum of Nature & Science for bathroom breaks and naps.

Though such “forest schools,” or waldkindergartens, are commonplace in European countries like Germany and Sweden, they’re only beginning to catch on in the U.S. 

Worldmind certainly stands out as a unique preschool option now, but Patterson hopes other programs will follow her lead and move the classroom outdoors.

“I like to think of it as using Mother Nature as a co-teacher,” Patterson said. 

The Right Fit

Though Patterson never studied the outdoors, she spent much of her childhood in Grand Junction immersed in nature or hiking and backpacking across Colorado. So when she was looking for a university that fit her wilderness-loving personality, CU made sense. 

“The second I stepped on campus, it felt like the right fit,” she said. 

Patterson majored in communications, but couldn’t shake an interest in education. After graduation, she opted to continue with the teacher licensing program at CU’s School of Education. 

She spent the next year earning her teaching license in elementary education. Next came a stint teaching English in Jordan with the Peace Corps, followed by a return to the U.S. as a charter school instructor in Commerce City, Colorado.

Then, her career took her north — way north — to teach second grade and coach basketball and cross-country in the tiny Native Alaskan village of Stebbins. Patterson thrived in the ultra-remote town on the Bering Sea, where the only way in and out was by plane.

“In Alaska, everything centered around the school,” Patterson said. “It brought back that community piece [for me].” 

“I fell in love with the idea of learning outdoors, having students take risks and learn from Mother Nature.”

Next, she moved to Colorado and completed an online master’s thesis on the forest education model at Lesley University in Boston. Patterson’s research, combined with her teaching experiences, inspired the Worldmind model. 

“I fell in love with the idea of learning outdoors, having students take risks and learn from Mother Nature,” she said. 

While there are different versions of forest schools built around teaching children outside, she gravitated toward those that also teach kids ecological lessons while being in nature daily. In Colorado, she couldn’t find such a program in the Denver area for her son, Aiden. 

She drew from her graduate school research to launch Worldmind as a nonprofit program in 2015. At first, children attended with their caregivers.

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I started it,” Patterson said. “I just knew that I wanted to connect kids with nature.”

Outdoor Benefits

Patterson found a burgeoning body of research that suggests outdoor preschools improve mental and physical health, reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lead to better problem-solving skills and risk assessment. 

When she started Worldmind, she was blown away by how enthusiastically kids and their caregivers responded to nature-based learning. She became determined to offer it to a wider population. 

“After seeing all the benefits students can gain, I really wanted to make it accessible to more families,” Patterson said. 

She had work to do. 

Just a few years ago, there were no state child care licenses available in the U.S. for outdoor preschools. (Colorado has several such preschools, but none were officially licensed.) Worldmind hadn’t needed one because each child had a caregiver present, but that model wasn’t feasible for working parents. Another challenge — outdoor preschools can be expensive due to low student-teacher ratios needed to ensure safety. And, without state licensing options, parents couldn’t use state-based financial aid to pay their child’s tuition.

She decided to expand her program to make outdoor preschool an option for more families by attaining a state license.

"I think it’s exciting that this sort of program can gain legitimacy in the U.S., and great for Colorado to be a leader in that way.”

In 2018, she approached Colorado’s Office of Early Childhood about creating an official license for outdoor programs like hers. The state agreed to a pilot program, which kicked off in 2018. Over the course of the program, Patterson had a lot to prove — she had to convince regulators that outdoor preschools were safe for kids. She documented every animal encounter (off-leash dogs and geese) and run-ins with strangers (two minor incidents in three years) and conducted hourly weather and attendance checks. 

She did have to bend on a few things — no outdoor naptime or learning to build fires — but was granted permission to keep kids outside down to 13°F with windchill and to let them climb trees. 

In summer 2021, Patterson’s pilot licensing program was formally approved and Worldmind earned its permanent license — the state’s first outdoor preschool to do so. 

The move makes Colorado only the second state to license an outdoor preschool, after Washington, and opens the door for other programs to earn similar bona fides.

“Outdoor preschool really aligns with so many of the values of our own teacher programs,” said Kathy Schultz, dean of CU Boulder’s School of Education. “Children are allowed to pursue their own questions and curiosities. It’s very immersive, which is what we look for in education, too. I think it’s exciting that this sort of program can gain legitimacy in the U.S., and great for Colorado to be a leader in that way.”

Since obtaining the pilot license, Patterson has expanded Worldmind’s offerings to include half- and full-day preschool programs, and in fall 2020, Patterson added an elementary school program up to fifth grade. This year, she added sixth grade. 

Social-Emotional Skills 

Patterson’s unique approach to early childhood education quickly earned Worldmind dedicated fans — as of fall 2021, the preschool had 40 students and a 40-deep waiting list. 

In addition to the outdoor components, Patterson places special emphasis on social-emotional learning to help kids develop confidence, solve problems and interact with each other. A daily lesson for a preschooler could include playing games that teach boundary-setting or sorting horse chestnuts, whereas older children may build a model of their own community.

“I’ve found that, if you put those social-emotional skills first and build a community where kids feel safe, the academic learning naturally happens,” she said. 

Stacy Grissom first sent her son, Oliver, to Worldmind’s preschool as a three-year-old; he’s now in first grade there. 

“He absolutely thrives,” she said. “At four years old, he and his friends could solve conflicts without adult interaction. It was phenomenal to watch.” 

Grissom said she’d send Oliver to Worldmind through high school if that becomes an option. 

“I appreciate how much Worldmind really looks at each individual kid,” she said. “They let the kids be themselves and appreciate them for who they are.”

Megan Patterson with her students
Megan Patterson with her students
Megan Patterson with her students
Megan Patterson with her students
Megan Patterson with her students

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Photos courtesy Megan Patterson