Singing Cedars: The Outdoor Classroom | Everything You Need to Know to Save the World Should Be Learned in Preschool

Dr. Cox’s daughters embrace the natural world without fear or hesitation.

This summer gave me an opportunity to thank the universe for providing the gift of Singing Cedars, a Waldorf-inspired preschool and kindergarten in Fairfield, to my two daughters. The experience Singing Cedars gives them in their early childhood will do just as much, if not more, to prepare them for our ecologically uncertain future as anything that happens later in their lives.

This revelation came through two contrasting experiences I had during the same week. I started out the week doing river cleanup in Iowa, this year on the Wapsipinicon, through the DNR’s Project AWARE, with my father and my 12-year-old niece. The first day, we went from my niece screaming about a spider web and being afraid of a fish touching her to swimming in the river and brushing past actual spiders.  But the gains in my niece’s comfort in nature didn’t carry over into day two. If was as if she had to be convinced all over again that the natural world wasn’t out to get her.

I’m certainly not trying to disparage my niece. She seems to be a typical 12-year-old: concerned with boys, pop music, electronic devices, and the like. But the contrast came a couple of days later, when I took my six- and three-year-old daughters to Lacey-Keosauqua State Park to go crick stomping. As we hiked into the creek, immediately the two girls took off in opposite directions, trying to catch the small fish, frogs, and water striders that resided in the pools of sunlit water. It hit me that they felt at home in nature, fearing nothing, and that they belonged there just as much as the frogs and water striders. 

In ruminating for the last couple of months on the gift that is Singing Cedars, I also realized that it prepared them for the sustainability struggles that will define their lifetimes. Sustainability education theory essentially boils down to this: students need to be able to experientially internalize their connections with the natural world and they need to have the space to develop their imaginations to the fullest.  The first of these requirements should be obvious, but the second is only becoming clear as many of the sustainability efforts of the last 20 years are coming up short. More and more people are recognizing that true sustainability will require, in Aldo Leopold’s words, “creating a new kind of people,” people who aren’t beholden to the unsustainable myths of our modern culture. 

Singing Cedars students take a forest walk.

Waldorf education does both of these things. I can give two superficial examples. First, my kids take a hike into the “Magic Forest”—a pine forest near the school—every day. The teacher considers it to be her “outdoor classroom,” where students are encouraged to explore and engage the natural world on their own terms. Second, they watch puppet shows and play with open-ended toys, made of natural materials, like Waldorf dolls that don’t have faces.  This encourages them to use their imagination to bring the dolls to life.

To me, the most beautiful part of my children’s Singing Cedars experience is that these two educational necessities are not thrust upon them in some contrived way but instead are the natural by-product of allowing them to be the beautiful beings that they are. And I’m convinced that in the future, the sustainable solutions that will flow from my daughters’ early childhood experiences at Singing Cedars will be just as beautiful, imaginative, and natural in their ability to make explicit our interconnections with the natural world.

The Singing Cedars Harvest Festival on October 10 runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with live music, homemade bread & soup, pumpking carving, scarecrow making, pie walk, scavenger hunt, archery, corn doll making, and more. Singing Cedars is located at 2149 N. B Street in Fairfield, Iowa. For more information, call (641) 469-3196.


Travis Cox, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sustainable Living at Maharishi University of Management.