02/28/2011 at 01:00 AM EST
Four-year-old Finn Magonegil tugs at a low-lying branch of a Douglas fir and nibbles at the buds. "Forest candy-high in vitamin C," explains Erin Kenny, founder of Cedarsong Nature School, a year-round, entirely outdoor school for 3-to 6-year-olds on Vashon Island, Wash. "The children discover how things feel, taste and smell," she says. "Children allowed to immerse in nature learn creativity, cooperation and problem-solving." Cedarsong, one of a handful of outdoor preschools that have opened in the past four years in the U.S., is modeled after similar schools in Germany and Scandinavia, where studies have shown academic and health benefits for children exposed to nature. In an era where kids are spending too much time indoors, argues Richard Louv, whose 2005 book Last Child in the Woods served as an inspiration for the U.S. movement, "even a little bit of nature can help a lot."