Learning in the Great Outdoors
If you have a kiddo at home in the age range of three to five years old, you probably have your hands full keeping them occupied. When they attend preschool, are they getting time in the open air to explore the natural world and burn off excess energy? Learning isn’t only about letters, writing, and creating artistic masterpieces, after all.
A big piece of early education is developing and nurturing a sense of curiosity about nature, about things that grow and fly and chirp, and about the environment and how to sustain it. Nature schools, also called nature-based preschools, encourage this growth by guaranteeing part of the day is spent discovering the world outdoors. How much and where these activities occur differs from center to center, but the intent to spend child-directed learning time under the open sky is a common thread.
Before you think this is some new fad, consider that preschools in Europe adopted this model decades ago. Parents don’t need to search for nature preschools because that’s the common model. If you’re interested in finding a local preschool like that for your young explorer, we’ve done the initial homework for you. Follow our CedarSongNatureSchool.org guide below:
- What is a Nature School?
- Pros of Outdoor Learning
- Standards & Licensing
- Nature Preschools Near You
- Resources for Parents
- Resources for Teachers
What is a Nature School?
A nature school is a market basket of programs generally falling under the label of nature-based early childhood education (NbECE). They run the gamut from nature preschools to forest kindergartens, continuing into early school grades up to eight to ten years old. Their common thread is offering learning within the context of nature.
Early NbECE history
The nature-based preschools and elementary schools long a staple of education in Europe come in a variety of styles and programs differing in age and amount of time spent outside. Forest programs spend 70-100% of their time outdoors learning through nature, while nature preschools spend 30% or more in nature. Indoor time and space at the most advanced programs mimic nature in physical design and learning curriculum.
In the U.S., the first recognized nature preschool opened in 1967. The New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut today includes trails and a visitor center open to the public. While their early focus was on preschool, today their mission extends to creating interest and enthusiasm in nature learning to all ages.
Labeling these kinds of programs as nature center-based preschools continued up to the early 2000s, recognizing that they were often a parks and rec program or associated with a formal garden. With growing interest came common definitions about the level of nature infused in child learning. More preschools claimed a nature-inspired curriculum, but with the unfortunate byproduct of parental confusion about inconsistencies in how much nature was included in curricula.
The nature curriculum continuum
Experts agree that the continuum of the nature portion of nature-based looks something like this:
- No nature inside or out (and dirt-free too)
- Nature inside, including plants but no digging
- Natural play inside, complete with dirt
- Occasional outdoor time beyond a playground
- Nature indoors, outdoors, and outside the fence (loads of dirt)
At its most intensive, nature-based preschools embrace experiential activities in nature and the natural environment in all aspects of their programs. It’s not only learning about nature without interacting in it but learning as a result of being in it.
Consider this a circle of life, where a child puts the seed in the dirt, waters it, watches it grow, sees the flower produce a vegetable, and eats the vegetable at the end. You as a parent are an active participant, extending that learning into home-based fun. Parents who experience nature-based childhood learning agree that once you start to become involved in your child’s nature-centric learning, you’ll be hooked yourself.
Link to environmental education
Early education about the environment followed a similar continuum as a developing partnership between you and the teacher following the child’s interests to see where they lead. Together, you discover answers and unearth new questions about the simplicity and complexity of how the environment and humans intersect. Nature is at the core of a child’s path of discovery, featuring development of those traits essential to their success as an adult – curiosity, willingness to experiment, problem solving, and critical thinking.
Nature-based learning model
Imagine going to a school where the curriculum is all about play. Sounds great, doesn’t it? If work seemed more like play, we’d all be happier, and your preschool child is no different.
Nature-based learning embraces the seasonal cycles of the natural world, and at its core, student self-discovery. If the journey of an earthworm along the ground fascinates, turn that into a learning opportunity. The same can be applied to bird nests with cheeps, how water flows in a creek to the seas, and how tall a tree grows.
As you can imagine, this requires a teacher who’s quick-witted and can find a way to turn that interest into a learning opportunity. The same applies to you as a parent. Kids love it because they can see immediate value in learning something, whether it’s counting the number of chicks in the nest or measuring the distance the worm traveled, and that’s the kind of learning that makes them excited and motivated to learn even more.
The Pros of Outdoor Learning
A long list of benefits supports the need for nature preschools for our kids. Here are some of the obvious and not-so-obvious ones:
- Advancing better brain and cognitive development
- Developing stronger emotional and social coping skills
- Learning about the environment and protecting the planet
- Seeing how things in the wild work
- Applying what they learn (counting, letters, crafts) in the real world
- Fostering self-discovery and emerging interests
- Encouraging time outdoors and not on screens
- Growing as budding citizen-scientists
- Learning to problem solve and experiment
- Playing at a healthy activity to reduce early childhood obesity
- Having fun!
Let’s not overlook the importance of these last two. Numerous studies prove the healthy and wholesome value of letting a little dirt into our children’s lives, and unless there’s an underlying physical condition that prohibits time in nature, we as humans all benefit from it. And let’s emphasize this again – who doesn’t want learning to be something to look forward to and enjoy?
Standards and Licensing
All this fun and self-discovery and dirt time isn’t a free-for-all. Nature-based preschools and other NbECE programs are licensed and credentialed by the educational agencies of their state with oversight from the Federal government. The preschools are licensed early education programs for those in the 3-5 age range, and some also lap into kindergarten.
Standards for the programs
Because there had been so much variation in what nature-based programs offered, the Natural Start Alliance began in 2013 to create definitions and standards. Its purpose continues to be the creation and implementation of guidelines for parents, defining nature programs and curriculum content. As of 2017, over 250 programs around the world belong to this organization and more are joining all the time.
To check licensing, first look to your state’s Department of Education. The requirements are most often found under a label something like ‘early learning division’ or ‘licensed child care’. (In some states, this is a standalone department, so also look for ‘department of children, youth and families’ or similar.) There you’ll follow the trail down the rabbit hole of standards for general preschool programs, and you may also find links to specific third-party objective review agencies.
For specific nature-based preschool or elementary programs, check the map and list of provider-members on the Natural Start Alliance website. They partner with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) to advance curriculum about the environment at all levels of education. Both organizations have resource links on their websites on a variety of nature-based topics, including some that will give you a better idea of how to select a ‘good’ program for your child.
On a regional level, you’ll also find organizations that support nature-based preschool teachers with curriculum, certifications and educational programs. Some offer local conferences and many of these are open to parents. This sounds like a lot of internet searching, but it will be worth it when your child (and you) find a center that makes you both crave nature learning in an environmentally-conscious and fun way.
Nature Preschools Near You
When you look for a reputable local preschool, it’s easy to get stuck on the big names of Montessori or Waldorf and search for programs that adopt their principles and values. There are many more out there, though, some who belong to the professional groups, and others that do not but embrace the concepts.
Here are some terrific examples:
If you live in an urban area, chances are there’s a nature preschool near you. If you’re in Seattle, Washington, you have many to choose from, such as Fiddleheads Forest School in the old growth trees of the University of Washington’s Botanical Gardens. Two values they emphasize for their students are community involvement and embracing diversity.
You could be excused for thinking that it’s all about building sandcastles at All Friends Nature School in San Diego, California. Their commitment to experiential learning to motivate children focuses on better readiness for their full time school years. Parks and public areas throughout the city and its surroundings are their classroom, and no two days are the same.
Adding an appreciation for diversity into the mix, the enrollment at Brooklyn Park Nature Preschool in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is over 40% children of color and 15% receiving financial aid. It reflects its multicultural, ethnically diverse community with equity as one of its founding goals. While it’s been a preschool program since 1980, it joined the formal nature movement in 2016 and now includes 60% of students’ time outdoors around the year.
In case you think you won’t be able to find a program for your child with a specific learning or physical need, think again. In metro Atlanta, Georgia, the Frazer Center Child Development Program serves kids with and without disabilities. Besides filling a special niche, the interaction of children along the ability spectrum allows them all to learn a disability doesn’t have to be a limitation or a reason to tease.
For sight impaired kids, the Perkins School for the Blind Early Learning Center in Watertown, Massachusetts, includes time in the greenhouse, the pool and outdoor parks. These activities build on whatever limited sight the child has and enhance children’s other senses to optimize their overall learning. Similar programs for hearing-impaired kids exist through the country, many times in partnership with full K-12 schools.
Not all programs feature the same kinds of nature activities. If you have an eager future farmer, there’s Drumlin Farm Community Preschool in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where kids learn to feed the animals and grow the crops on the farm. This program is part of the Mass Audubon network of nature-based preschools.
You might look no further than your local botanical garden or forest preserve to raise an environmentally-responsive child. The Chicago Botanic Garden in the northern suburbs of this Illinois city offers a Nature Preschool. Here children use plant-based learning to enhance their skills and develop an environmental interest. Fully half of their experiential time is spent outside, perhaps helping in the greenhouse or in the new plant start beds.
It’s not just about fair weather regions, either, as Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan proves. Here kids learn about music and art through nature, and teachers encourage their social, emotional and motor skill development through year-round outdoor time. This program earns a five-star rating from the State of Michigan’s Great Start to Quality independent review body.
In Bastrop outside Austin, Texas, children at the Wild Life Forest Preschool within the Earth Native Wilderness School build rock dams across creeks and catch bugs to examine them further. Their imaginations are fired up creating stories about woodlands magic and responsibility to protect the earth among the tall trees. This learning model is based on indigenous Native American teachings and extends into later school and adult years through the umbrella program.
Other tribal links stretch from sea to sea, including the Squaxin Island Child Development Center in Shelton, Washington, the westernmost city on Puget Sound. Native American tribes hold the earth and the environment as sacred in their customs and teachings, and the children in this program (and their families) celebrate nature’s lifecycles. Kids experience salmon habitat and its lifecycle, and they also learn how to drum and chant following cultural traditions (that might be a mixed blessing for parents).
In Newburyport, Massachusetts, Merrohawke also bases their students’ learning on Native American beliefs. Here it’s the ocean that’s the environmental center of attention. The center’s name means ‘strong place’, perfect for young learners to develop their personal sense of strength, and it encourages collaboration within the community for environmental supports and causes.
Resources for Parents
Parents are as BIG part of any nature-based approach, because what the child explores and learns at home is as important as their experiences during their program day. You will be as much a learner alongside your child as the teacher, and with that in mind, you want to make the most of your exploration time. Here are resources to help you be an active nature-based preschool parent and education contributor.
Guides on nature topics
Begin at Natural Start Alliance mentioned earlier in this article. Under the Resources tab on their website, they cover a range of topics to enrich environmental education and nature enjoyment with your kiddo. Some of these are free, and others are available for a reasonable cost. As an example, the first on the list on the day we checked, “A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play”, covers how to ‘kidscape’ your yard and how to nature play as a family.
For guidance to help you learn about how to teach your child about a healthy environment, visit Children & Nature Network. On their Learn tab, you’ll find resources from hands-on tools to research reports and numerous opportunities to immerse yourself as deeply as you wish in better environmental education through nature. The site overall points to opportunities for advocacy in its many local to international platforms.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), a professional organization with a membership base focused on teachers and educators, offers topical coverage to those who aren’t members too. Search the topics list for resources about meaningful play, building science and technology into daily activities, and strengthening healthy coping strategies for young ones. Research shows that children in nature-based programs are calmer, more focused, and more confident, and that’s a great combo for future learning success.
To learn more about what standards you should expect teachers to uphold in a nature preschool, begin with your state’s preschool oversight department or division. Sometimes this is within the state’s education department, or it might be a standalone department focused on children’s services in larger population states. You can often search on ‘preschool licensing’ or standards or guidelines to learn more about specifics.
From an industry perspective, check out Natural Start Alliance’s Resources page and in the search pulldown, select ‘Curriculum/Resource Guides’. This brings up a variety of publications, many of which are free as downloads, with detailed guidelines that go beyond the boundaries of state legislation. Paging through the curriculum guides gives you great info on what to expect from an advanced nature-based preschool program.
Look to Children & Nature Network’s Tools & Resources for infographics and guides on preschool (and older) nature- and forest-based centers that feature environmental education in their programs. These are great for you to use to educate other parents of young children about the benefits of significant outdoor time as well as providing ideas about how to make your home and activities more nature exploration-friendly. The Green Schoolyard report available for download also provides plans for how a school can modify existing areas for more nature play.
Resources for Teachers
If you’re a preschool or early education teacher, you may be receiving questions from parents about the nature-based aspects of your program. How do you make your center’s offerings more robust? Here are some resources to begin your search:
If you want to up your game when it comes to nature or forest preschool programs, the best place to begin is with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAECC). You might already be a member, and if so, click on the Resources tab on the association’s website for learning opportunities. These include everything from credentialed online education programs to webinars, books and journals, and topical coverage.
On the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Resources page, you’ll find links to lesson plans, research ideas, and tools for your nature- or forest-based center. Many of these are geared to specific age groups, making it easier to find what you need to enhance your learning curriculum. More articles are being added on a regular basis.
The Natural Start Alliance is a parent-centric site, but it doesn’t leave out teachers too. Check their Resources tab to find helpful videos and publications your children’s parents are reading. You’ll then know why you’re getting the questions you do.
Standards and guidelines
Beginning at the top, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s website and type ‘preschool’ in the search box. This pulls up a long list of papers, rulings and grants focused on this age group, with the funding opportunities for nature- and forest-based pilot projects perhaps being the most interesting. Performing the same kind of search on your state’s oversight website (whatever body regulates preschools in your state) can yield additional guidelines and funding options.
NAAEE is about excellence in environmental education for all ages, and for the preschool teacher, look no further than the Guidelines for Excellence series on their site. The association also published a book with a standard set of professional guidelines for developing and implementing a successful nature-based, environmentally appropriate program. Becoming a member means you learn more about environmental-focused education and receive a discount on their many great guides and standards packets.
Don’t overlook the many national and regional conferences as another way to learn about current standards and guidelines for programs. Any of the professional or parental sites have a conference tab or link, and many if not all of these are open to nonmembers. Many are now offered online, a real money and time-saver.
Checklist for a Nature Preschool
Finding a preschool is stressful enough and adding the nature portion into the mix can be confusing when compared to traditional (non-nature) programs. There are many detailed preschool selection checklists available for download, such as one available from Parenting for Brain. Specific providers also offer comparative checklists, like Bright Horizons.
For the nature-based portion, though, there often isn’t anything called out about outdoor experiential time. Begin with the map and list of member providers available on the Natural Start Alliance website, but if you don’t find a center in your area, don’t despair. Not all programs have the resources to become members.
When a preschool program says it is nature-based, use a standard preschool review list, and add on these questions to compare the nature or forest portion:
- How long has the program been nature- or forest-based?
- What nature-based credentials do teachers hold?
- How is nature integrated into the classroom experience?
- How long in each program day do the children spend in nature? (At least 30% for nature-based and 70-100% for forest.)
- When in the program day are the children outside?
- What happens if nature time occurs during extreme weather conditions?
- What is the teacher-child ratio during outdoor time?
- What locations do the children visit during their outdoor time?
- What activity guidance or teacher-prompts do the children receive during their outdoor time?
- How are seasonal activities embraced as part of the environmental curriculum?
- How do the teachers keep children safe (strangers, waterways, crossing traffic, in a vehicle) during outdoor time?
- How is nature integrated into the building interior for exploration?
- What kinds of natural materials are available for child stimulation?
- What should my child bring with him/her each day? (Change of clothes is a good sign!)
- How will your program encourage hands-on discovery and play that reflects my child’s unique perspective about nature and the environment?
You’ll find more to ask based on your child’s (and your own) interests, so take notes as you review resources. Look at similar programs around the country to see what others are doing and list features you like. If you don’t see something offered by a preschool you’re comparing, ask – the program may be willing and eager to add new ideas to their curriculum.
After you’ve done the research and checked out the tools and what the experts say, the ultimate test is your instinct. If your gut says it won’t be a good match, move on. In the end, you’ll have a happier, healthier, nature-loving child with a greater appreciation for the planet and all that’s precious about it.
And make some time to dig in the dirt beside them too!