Wide Open Spaces: Nature-Based Early Education Sprouts Success for Kids
Early childhood is a time of exploration and wonder during which every sight, sound, taste, smell, and interaction is a learning opportunity. No environment is as valuable, rich, or challenging in learning as nature. When in natural environments, children encounter change, risk, and beauty. They explore the limits of their physical capabilities by climbing trees, jumping from rocks, and wading across streams. They solve problems by observing natural changes, negotiating conflicts, and taking the perspective of plants, animals, and peers. They develop social and emotional skills by tending gardens, noticing the needs of all sorts of creatures, and cooperating with others. In fact, studies have shown that when children learn in a natural setting, they demonstrate better concentration, less stress, more physical activity, increased engagement in learning, and improved self-discipline. There is something truly magical about the learning that happens for children when they interact with the outdoors.
Unfortunately, children are spending increasing amounts of time indoors and on electronics. Across the country children are losing access to nature due to poor urban planning, disappearing green space, and increasing crime. As coined by Richard Louv, Nature-Deficit Disorder describes the negative mental, physical, and social outcomes of alienation from nature and natural settings. Now is the time when early childhood education can prevent such negative outcomes by embracing a nature-based philosophy and curriculum.
“No environment is as valuable, rich, or
challenging in learning as nature.
There is something truly magical about
the learning that happens for children
when they interact with the outdoors.”
But what exactly does this look and sound like? At their foundation, nature-based preschools put the natural world at the core of their teaching practices. They use nature and natural elements to support children’s development across a wide variety of domains including language, literacy, math, science, cognition, and social-emotional skills. Just like traditional preschools, nature-based preschools strive to prepare children with the skills and abilities needed for school and life success. But unlike traditional preschool, they keep nature at the heart of their teaching to achieve this success. Nature-based preschools believe that helping children understand and care for their natural world is a critical part of healthy development. They also believe that access to nature is imperative to children’s mental, physical, and social health. Luckily, a growing body of research demonstrates a variety of benefits for children attending nature-based preschools.
Nature-based preschools prioritize children’s engagement in extended periods of unstructured play outdoors. This means that while teachers are available to ask open-ended questions and offer support, they are not controlling children’s activities. This unstructured play has been shown to be essential to children’s physical health, as well as their development of self-regulation, empathy, and group management skills. While exploring within a natural setting, as opposed to a curated playground, children must negotiate risk as they trip, stumble, fall, and eventually collect themselves. This supports effective risk management skills, improved self-confidence, and advances gross and fine motor development. The richness and diversity of experiences within a natural environment have been associated with important brain development for young children. And finally, research has shown that nature provides restorative effects from stress such that children demonstrate improved well-being and positive emotions. Overall, by embracing a nature-based philosophy, preschools can help young children develop the skills and abilities needed for immediate and long-term health and success.
In a time during which childhood obesity is a serious problem and children have unequal access to outdoor space, nature-based preschools offer opportunities for physical activity in natural settings while simultaneously developing school readiness skills such as self-regulation, creativity, problem solving, cooperation, risk management, and self-confidence. They expand the natural curiosity of young children and instill an early appreciation for the preservation of the natural world. While high-quality early childhood education is critical no matter the setting, by incorporating natural elements into their curriculum and philosophy, early educators can further enhance their work in the classroom and beyond. They can aim children toward a developmental trajectory of personal, societal, and environmental health. As early educators, we owe it to young children to grant them access to nature and all the immediate and long-term benefits it provides.
Let’s create preschools in which children can climb trees, jump from boulders, splash in puddles, tend gardens, observe wildlife, paint with mud, stack snowballs, write with sticks, dig in sand, wade across streams, and care for each other and the environment.
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Learn more about the research behind nature-based education
- When children learn in a natural setting, they demonstrate better concentration, less stress, more physical activity, increased engagement in learning, and improved self-discipline: Kuo, Barnes, & Jordan, 2019
- Unstructured play has been shown essential to children’s physical health, as well as their development of self-regulation, empathy, and group management skills: Alliance for Childhood, 2010
- Exploring in a natural setting supports effective risk management skills, improved self-confidence, and advances gross and fine motor development: Cooper, 2015
- The richness and diversity of experiences within a natural environment have been associated with important brain development for young children: Rivkin, 2000
- Nature provides restorative effects from stress such that children demonstrate improved well-being and positive emotions: Ernst, Johnson, & Burcak, 2018
- Prevalence of childhood obesity in the United States: CDC, 2019
- Children often experience unequal access to outdoor space: Strife & Downey, 2009