Looking for preschool with more nature & play-based activities

Hello, fellow east bay parents.

Our 3 year old daughter is currently attending a Montessori school, and while she does enjoy her teachers and classmates, she seems a little bored and understimulated by the curriculum and structure. She has shown signs of needing more play-based activities (pretend play, self-discovery activities, etc.)  and generally more time outdoors. She really thrives when she's in nature. We were curious about the Pine Crest School in Kensington, but there isn't much information about it online. I also wanted to hear from parents who may have other recommendations, and how these preschools are operating during COVID-19.


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My kids adored Redwood Garden Preschool in Berkeley. Just 6 kids and a fantastic Waldorf teacher. Gentle, loving, supportive, & lots of outside time. Not sure current status with pandemic.

We had a marvelous experience at the East Bay Waldorf school last year. They're closed this year due to COVID-related expenses and income loss proving too burdensome, but if you're open to a little bit of ambiguity going forward you might keep an eye on their website to see what their plans are for the 2021-2022 year. If they're able to reopen, it sounds like they'd be EXACTLY what you're looking for for your daughter. You might also check out Berkeley Rose, the other Waldorf school in the East Bay, which I believe is open now in some capacity.

Hi there, my son attends Pine Crest and we like a lot of things about it — they spend a ton of time outside (nature walks every day, a great outdoor space) and are very self-directed in their play. All kids wear masks and stay within their pods, though the teachers (also masked) periodically move around to help out with the other classes. On balance the sheer amount of outdoor time has been the biggest pro, both for our particular kid and in general since Covid started. We were much more comfortable sending him back to school knowing that he'd be outdoors more than in. Feel free to DM me if you'd like to talk more!


Our 2yo started at Step One School in Berkeley in September and absolutely loves it. I fell in love with it when we toured last January, mostly for their lovely little hillside play area with trees, a small pond and stream, treehouse lookout, and adorable playground (including a small separate playground for the 2yos). They are definitely more play-based and child-led; in my daughter's classroom this week they're doing some activities around taking care of babies since a lot of the kids seemed interested in baby dolls and some have baby siblings on the way. I love that they follow the interests of the kids and create "lessons" and activities around things they're already showing interest in. I know they have some openings for ages 2-5 right now so you should look into it if it seems like a good option! Feel free to send me a message if you want more info.


It's been years since my children were in preschool, but we had a great experience with New School in north Berkeley.  It's play-based, and children have a great deal of freedom to choose their own activities. Playing outside is always one of the options - no need to wait for a specific recess or outdoor time.  Pre-Covid, they also had weekly field trips to local parks, as well as walking over to Totland for lunch once a week. For our family, it was a perfect fit.   


Right next to PineCrest (literally) is The Good Earth School.  It is an outdoor, nature based preschool for kids 18months - 6 (right now with kindergarten closures).

My two year old attends and they take hikes, they have a large outdoor area for play, and their activities are heavily based with items from nature.  She's not the most outdoor kid, but she's still loving it as do I to balance out the fact that we have no yard.  She comes home dirty (from enjoyment, not due to lack of care) and having had a "happy day" - in her words.


Hi there! Our 3-1/2 year old daughter has attended the Yellow House Playschool in Oakland both pre- and post-COVID. YHP is a very small, play-based program run out of the director’s home and we received no fewer than four unsolicited recommendations for it from acquaintances and family friends.

Since it reopened in June, it’s been even smaller and 100% outside. As it gets colder/rainy, they’ll go indoors more but I expect they’ll still spend time outdoors playing and going for walks in the neighborhood. It’s definitely not forest school, and it’s part-time hours, but it’s a wonderful program and feels very safe and supportive during this uncertain time. 

I want to add that I went to Montessori school for part of my childhood and it was formative for me. However, we decided play-based was better for our shy toddler and it’s been an amazing fit. Her imagination, curiosity, and self-confidence have blossomed, as have her social skills.

Best of luck and please reach out if you have any questions about YHP!

I adore our preschool, Via Nova in Berkeley (right by Ashby BART station).  After my son went to a montessori preschool, I moved him to Via Nova (based on a friends recommendation), and it was the best decision!   He completely blossomed, was utterly engaged, and often begged to stay longer at pick him. My daughter is now in her second year, and Via nova continues to be an amazing place for kids to thrive.  While now my son is "distance learning" 3rd grade at home, I am so glad my daughter gets the regularity and fun of her dear friends and teachers at preschool.  Via Nova is our extended family.  My son wishes he could go back!   My kids are different, but both benefitted and loved the outside play, involved and elaborate art projects, and deeply supportive social environment.  We are so grateful.

Thank you everyone for your very thoughtful and detailed reviews of school options. My list of schools to tour has now grown considerably. I'll DM you if I need more info on a specific school. All the best, and hoping you all stay safe during these uncertain times.

Just wanted to put in a plug in for CEC in the flats of Berkeley. They are historically reasonably priced, play-based, and in non-COVID times they have been piloting a forest school for the older kids (TK year type of thing). I believe there are openings right now, and we've been happy there for over 2 years. 

My son is at MCPC, a co-op preschool in Oakland, and having an amazing experience. He also started at a more structured preschool and just didn't seem to love it. Fast-forward to year two at MCPC and it is his favorite place to be. His first question every morning upon awakening is 'Do I get to go to school today?' The kids have tons of free play where they get to decide exactly what they want to do mixed with a little bit of circle time/teacher led activities to get used to taking turns, listening etc.

We've been at the school through COVID and have been thoroughly impressed with their transition to an almost completely outdoor school day. My son was actually sad that it wasn't raining today because he had so much fun playing outside in the rain. The school already had a huge outdoor area and now it is used almost exclusively. Everyone has been very thoughtful about every aspect of reopening in a way to keep families and teachers safe and we have a COVID community agreement in place as well.

The thing we have been the most impressed with, however, is the social emotional learning and anti-bias curriculum. Our son is learning at age 4 how to problem solve and communicate with his peers in a way my older child never did. He's also already getting the message that people have similarities and differences, in the ways they look, how they behave and what their belief systems are — and they are all to be celebrated. MCPC is truly a gem, please check it out!