The sun is shining and the data is in. Nature-based learning provides serious benefits to young children.
And yet, so many preschools and child care centers struggle to make it an active part of the curriculum.
Whether it’s a lack of resources or a lack of interest, there’s no reason you can’t start taking steps toward nature-based learning (NBL) and start driving better engagement with young kids.
In this article, we’ll reveal the benefits of nature-based learning in early childhood education (ECE) and share practical tips to help you bring nature-based ECE into your preschool or child care center.
Nature-based learning (NBL) is defined as “learning that occurs in natural settings and where elements of nature have been brought into built environments, such as plants, animals, and water.”
When most educators think about nature-based learning programs, there’s a misconception that it has to be an all or nothing approach.
Either you have a Pinterest-worthy design that blurs the lines between your classroom and a jungle, or you’re just a standard classroom. But preschoolers don’t need to feel like they’re on a real-life jungle safari in order to benefit from a nature-based curriculum.
We’ll share some easy, practical ways you can make your preschool classroom more nature-friendly. But first, let’s take a look at the differences between a nature-based classroom and a forest-based classroom.
These two terms sometimes get thrown around interchangeably, but a nature-based preschool is quite a bit different from a forest-based preschool.
Here’s how the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) defines the two, and what you need to know about the differences:
There is a growing body of research around nature-based education and its impact on learning and development in early childhood.
So far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s dive into the goals of nature-based learning and how children are responding to the practice based on the available evidence.
You may be wondering, how exactly does a nature-based preschool help improve a child’s ability to learn?
Over decades of research in early childhood education, there has been a good deal of back-and-forth around the benefits of accommodating various learning styles in teaching.
While studies have varied around whether or not accommodating diverse learning styles provides benefits to students, we can all agree that meeting a preschooler with an engaging curriculum is important.
That’s where nature-based learning has proven to be an option worth exploring.
Studies show that nature-based learning is more engaging to a wider range of children. This is partially due to the fact that place-based learning naturally accommodates different learning styles, allowing children to explore curricular activities in a way that’s interesting to them.
For example, the 2019 study Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship published in Frontiers in Psychology revealed several clear engagement outcomes for young children.
The study showed that:
This not only helps children learn academically, but has a magnitude of benefits psychologically as well.
A nature-based curriculum is built around a theoretical framework called “pedagogy of place.”
With this framework, students learn to use the environment, as well as the community around them as a source of learning.
This also helps the curriculum reflect back as relevant to the children, as they see materials being applied within their own world. As a result, there has been an increased connection with community involvement, volunteering, and overall increased community activism in children who participated in place-based learning.
When students are more connected to the world around them, we see some really big changes in their overall health.
NBL preschools often practice something called garden-based learning, which empowers and educates children on how to take control of what they eat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many of the leading causes of death are either caused by, or are heavily impacted by, obesity. With healthy eating habits beginning within the first few years of a child’s life, focusing on nutrition within a preschool curriculum can be extremely beneficial to overall health and wellness later in life.
Despite the research, many schools still struggle to introduce nature-based learning into the everyday.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the drawbacks of an NBL curriculum and discover some of the ways to combat these challenges, even when resources are limited.
One of the biggest disappointments when it comes to nature-based learning is just how inaccessible the practice is to so many children.
In the United States, only 3% of outdoor preschoolers are Black or African American, and only 7% are Hispanic or Latinx. The biggest reason nature-based programs are harder to access is that they tend to be more expensive programs.
Forest-based preschools often do not have a license or access to government funding, forcing their income to be based on higher tuition rates. Nature-based programs often have additional requirements when it comes to materials compared to normal classrooms, for example “an adequate amount of single service towels” is one such requirement commonly seen in a nature-based preschool.
For many young children, the tuition hikes required by NBL and forest-based programs will continue to make these programs difficult to access.
While nature-based learning sounds great in theory, it’s surprisingly difficult to implement correctly, safely, and oftentimes, legally.
There are many considerations that hold schools back from implementing a nature-based learning approach, such as:
While there’s a lot to overcome with implementing a nature-based curriculum, there’s also a lot that can be done within a standard classroom.
With the right approach, you can capture many of the learning benefits for your own preschool using some of the same techniques we see in nature-based or forest-based programs.
Having the support of your parents and community is extremely important when it comes to implementing a nature-based curriculum.
Studies show that millennial parents tend to be more overprotective of their children than previous generations. Building trust with parents by improving parent-teacher communication can help educate them on the many benefits of nature-based learning and get them on board with nature-based activities.
The NAAEE has a list of suggestions when it comes to choosing a location for nature-based learning, such as choosing a location that has both shady and sunny spots, various land conditions, and many places for children to explore.
Depending on your location, you may or may not have access to an outdoor area that ticks all the official boxes. Instead, focus your efforts on the goals of the location to help spark some practical ideas.
Goals of nature-based learning time can include:
Requirements for licensing are going to vary from place to place, so it's important to know your own restrictions when it comes to bringing children outdoors.
Requirements such as securing large objects to prevent them from tipping over may be difficult to accommodate in some settings. Fencing and barriers may also be difficult to obtain.
Be sure to educate your staff on your state's specific guidelines for outdoor play, and find ways to empower them to incorporate nature-based learning in a safe, practical and legal way.
While not every classroom is going to have full access to nature-based learning opportunities, there are some core factors most centers can accommodate in order to successfully incorporate a nature-based curriculum.
Here are a few nature-based activity examples to help get you started:
Whatever activities you choose, when it comes to nature-based learning, parental communication is crucial.
Use your child care management software or classroom app to keep parents informed, share research studies and information, and snap pictures of their children joyfully engaging with nature-based learning.
And if you’re ever in doubt, don’t be afraid to elicit feedback via a parent engagement survey. This can help reveal a parent’s core concerns so that you can respond with empathy and evidence.
While they may require some education, the new generation of parents understands the importance of finding time for nature better than most.
With the right approach to integrating nature-based learning into your preschool environment, you’ll be able to win parents’ trust and set your school apart as one that understands the importance of outdoor play in a world where it’s becoming increasingly rare.
If you’re looking for more ways to meet the demands of modern parents while increasing learning outcomes for the young children in your care, check out our guide to marketing your preschool to millennial and gen Z parents.