October 17, 2023

Emergent Place-Based, Outdoor Learning 

By Ryan C. Smith 
A small metal container filled with twigs and sticks in the center of the photo, with students out of focus around the container.
A scene of learning from a 2023 visit to Johnson Nature Center.

In February 2023, Johnson Nature Center welcomed the inaugural class to TreeSchool, which offers nature-based preschool education to Oakland County residents through Bloomfield Hills Schools. For alum Brooke Larm, TreeSchool is the realization of years of intentional study and a childhood literally grounded in summers spent running barefoot along the Au Sable River in Grayling, Michigan. Larm is an education specialist at Johnson Nature Center and Bowers School Farm. TreeSchool invites Pre-K children to Johnson Nature Center to develop a deeper connection to their community and world amidst the backdrop of a natural space and a guiding principle that “all kids deserve to experience the outdoors as part of their childhood.” 


At TreeSchool, students get dirty … and the team wouldn’t have it any other way.

The dynamism of the natural world – environment, seasons, flora and fauna – inspires an organic level of engagement that instructors strive to achieve in the traditional classroom.  

“I don’t think we ever went back inside after spring break,” remarks Larm, reflecting on the level of enthusiasm that the students show for their place of learning.  

TreeSchool participants spend their time on the 40 acres of Johnson Nature Center with occasional trips to Bowers School Farm – properties managed by Bloomfield Hills Schools as resources for Oakland County schools to visit. Small class sizes facilitate greater instructor interaction and individual attention, deepening the connection to the material and social-emotional development. 

Brooke Larm standing with her arms crossed while smiling. Larm is wearing a white shirt and is posed in front of several trees.
Larm, pictured from a 2023 visit to TreeSchool.


A student-led, emergent curriculum in which instructors plan lessons based on student interests steers activities at TreeSchool. Each group of students brings their own interests and curiosities, making each class a unique opportunity and deeper learning experience for the instructional staff. 

The natural environment acts as the third teacher, and challenges students “in every way imaginable – it’s up to us to steward, guide and focus that learning based on the needs and the interest of the children, their curiosities,” says Larm.  

Whether sessions springboard from a fascination with animal waste, worms or maple syrup production, student learning culminates in projects like building a composting space or planting a sugar maple to ensure the succession of the nature center’s sugarbush grove. 

Larm lights up when describing students returning to the facilities with their families, confidently marching about to show off what they have learned. 

In the traditional classroom, the window is the portal to the outside world that holds wonder and the freedom and release of recess and outdoor play.  

“Who isn’t interested in what’s outside the window?” asks Larm.  

Intentionally capturing that energy to reinforce learning and concepts through movement is an inherent benefit of outdoor education. 


The COVID-19 pandemic played a crucial role in defining the Johnson Nature Center as it is today. Traffic to the site increased with families searching for relief from the increased screen time of online schooling. Larm and the leadership team at Johnson Nature Center identified local societal and community needs they could not only fulfill, but develop through the intentional programming of TreeSchool.  

Outdoor childcare licensing and education programs in states like Washington and Colorado and organizations such as the NAAEE Natural Start Alliance provide inspiration, resources and support. 


Larm’s love for the outdoors stems from her youth, but her appreciation of the academic study of the environment blossomed at MSU when she adopted a minor in Environmental Studies to supplement her undergraduate Teacher Education degree, which she earned in 2003. She drew further inspiration from her teaching internship instructor, second grade science teacher Barbara Kallman of Williamston Community Schools. Following stints teaching domestically and internationally in Mexico and Germany, Larm returned to Michigan to MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center in Novi. Tollgate introduced the impact of farm-based programming, specifically on the skills of preschoolers, including conversational development, question formulation and decision making. 

Various scenes of learning and wildlife from a 2023 visit to TreeSchool.  

An M.A. in Teaching and Curriculum in 2020 allowed Larm to develop the lessons learned as a teacher education undergraduate, a classroom instructor and facilitator at Tollgate Farms into a focused approach to nature-based education. In October 2020, Larm joined Johnson Nature Center and began creating programming that would eventually launch TreeSchool. 

Larm nurtures her connection to MSU and the College of Education by serving on the college’s Alumni Board of Directors. Her leadership as president and co-president was instrumental in the successful launch of the board’s endowment and in building an intentional foundation for the organization’s future operations. Larm is in the final year of her term on the board, but her legacy will endure. 


Looking ahead, Larm and the team will continue to develop TreeSchool as “a ‘happy place’ to gain independence, make friends, develop unique skills and interests, and learn to contribute to a community.”  

TreeSchool staff advocate for the development of an environmental stewardship framework at an early age, as it prepares younger generations for the reality that they will interact more directly with the natural world in years to come to address challenges ranging from climate change to global food security. 

Striving for greater access, TreeSchool will expand to offer students the option of one- or two-day-a-week classes. The four-hour classes will follow a traditional semester structure over nine months, allowing students to join as they age in. 

Larm hopes to see greater recognition of the merits of similar programming throughout the state as well as increased funding and updated approaches to licensing to ease the establishment of outdoor classroom spaces. With intentional leadership and continued evolving understandings of the impacts of movement and the outdoors on early childhood education, the future of TreeSchool and other nature-based programs is bright – and muddy, and sweet and full of worms!

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