Neither rain, nor wind nor cold keeps the 3-, 4- and 5-year-old students at the Cincinnati Nature Center Preschool in Rowe Woods from class.

That's because the preschoolers start every day outside, no matter the weather.

"We are outside by 8:30 a.m. and spend a couple hours outside," says Tisha Luthy, director of the preschool in Clermont County's Union Township, which was started last fall to turn the nature center's 1,000 acres into a learning environment.

Students begin each day with circle time while sitting on tree stumps, and then hike in the nature preserve and engage in discovery-based learning activities. For example, a walk in the woods might involve collecting snails that lead to a math and science lesson.

It's one of just 25 preschools operated by nature centers around the country, but the idea of incorporating nature into children's learning is catching on. The movement is led by advocates like journalist Richard Louv, who wrote The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Louv believes being outside in nature should not be considered an extracurricular activity, but viewed as vital to a child's health and development.

The Cincinnati Waldorf School is launching an outdoor preschool next fall at its satellite campus at Meshewa Farm in Indian Hill. Called Woodland Preschool, it will offer classes for 3- and 4-year-olds for two, three or five mornings a week at the leased 100-acre farm on Given Road.

Enrollment director Karen Crick says the idea is to spend as much time as possible outdoors in play and immersion activities for the children.

It's not the only new wrinkle at the Waldorf School, which announced in February it acquired the Dale Park School building in Mariemont and will move in the fall from the leased Little Flower School building in Mount Airy where it offers classes through eighth grade.

Wide array of choices

Preschool and childcare comes in all shapes and sizes from individual nannies and home-based providers to drop-in centers and school- and community-based programs.

4C for Children, a regional non-profit resource for early education and childcare, has a searchable database of more than 2,400 Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky childcare, preschool and school-age programs at www.4cforchildren.org. It annually serves about 200,000 children in 40 counties.

"Sometimes people think preschool is where little kids go to learn and childcare is the place where kids are safe while parents are working," says Sallie Westheimer, 4C president and CEO. "We think both should be high quality early learning environments."

She says cost is one of the biggest challenges. "In some cases it exceeds the cost of college. And it's at a time when parents are at their lowest earning potential, when they're young and new in jobs."

In Hamilton County, for example, average weekly fees for childcare range from $167.43 for preschoolers to $216.78 for infants, according to 4C. There is financial assistance but it's typically limited to low-income families. In Ohio, eligibility for assistance is limited to incomes under $28,000 a year for a family of four.

Home-based childcare providers are typically less expensive.

"If you're lucky enough to have a relative or a friend who can care for your kids while you work, that's great," Westheimer says.

Childcare at Work

Only a small number of large employers such as Procter & Gamble and area hospitals offer on-site childcare to employees. 4C for Children is doing research on the affordability of area childcare and hopes to develop some recommendations for improvements. It hopes to engage local CEOs and HR managers to make childcare more available and affordable.

"If you go back 15 years or so, many employers had subsidies and referral services for childcare," Westheimer says. "I think a lot of those have gone by the wayside. We'd like to see that reinvigorated."

When it comes to choosing childcare or a preschool, both Ohio and Kentucky have rating systems to encourage facilities to pursue goals that exceed state licensing requirements.

In July, the system operated by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services at www.stepuptoquality.org will be expanded to include programs funded and structured under the education system.

The five-star system, expanded from the current three stars, will look at staff qualifications, children per adult care, curriculum and support for families.

Kentucky has a four-star voluntary rating system for providers, STARS for KIDS NOW. Go to www.chfs.ky.gov and search for STARS for KIDS NOW.

Kentucky's system includes both group and school programs and home-based care providers. In Ohio, home-based care providers for up to six children can apply July 1, 2014 to be part of rating system.

Visit the School

When it comes to choosing a private school, Beth Mock, development director at St. Mary School in Hyde Park, advises parents to feel the school's "climate" in person.

"Ask about academics, teacher expertise, programs offered and behavior expectations," she says. "The best match depends mostly on the fit with the child. Attend an open house, call the school office for a tour of the school building, and be sure to review the school website."

4C for Children also advises parents to ask a lot of questions when evaluating a preschool or childcare provider.

"Ask for credentials. We strongly recommend parents ask about teacher qualifications, what kind of training they've had," Westheimer says. "In Ohio and Kentucky you can be in charge of a group of children with only a high school diploma."

Westheimer says parents often ask what type of childcare or preschool program is best.

"My feeling is if a program has thought through what its theory is, what their approach is, it's likely to be a good program. It means they're being thoughtful in their approach and that's great."