Nature Education

Everything around us is connected to nature. When experiences with nature are embedded in the preschool curriculum and daily routine, children benefit physically, emotionally, and intellectually as they have new experiences, exercise their bodies, and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from being connected to the natural world. Children can turn over a rock or a piece of wood and find insects, worms, plant roots, and fungi. They can look at clouds or collect leaves and gain an appreciation of the variety of forms and textures in nature. They can hear birds or feel the wind and become aware of a whole sensory world beyond the classroom door. They feel joy.

Benefits of Including Nature in the Curriculum

An emerging body of research shows the harmful effects of children’s separation from nature and the benefits of strengthening those ties. There are implications for children’s physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development.

Physical development:

The unprecedented rise in childhood obesity, and the lack of time playing outdoors in nature is cited as one of the causes.

The increase in children’s “screen time” contributes to obesity through physical inactivity and the advertising of unhealthy food. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Public Education (2001) recommends that children under age two watch no television, and children over age two watch no more than 1–2 hours a day, research shows 43% of children under age two watch television daily, and 90% of children aged 4 to 6 use screen media an average of two hours a day. Studies cited by AAP show a significant correlation between watching media and being overweight. The guidelines issued by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE, 2010) recommend preschoolers get at least one hour a day of vigorous physical activity, yet studies show children fall far short of this goal.

Intellectual development:

Efforts to limit children’s exposure to the media indicate that children play more creatively in green space (Linn, 2010). As children explore the sensory variety of the outdoors, they learn important concepts in science (e.g., the living habits of plants and animals; the physical properties of different materials such as water, soil, and stone) and ecology (e.g., the importance of preserving natural resources; how their actions affect the environment). Exposure to nature also enhances young children’s language development (Miller, 2007). Children inquire about the names of the things they investigate and seek words to describe the processes they observe. Time in nature is also positively associated with sustained attention (Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001). Being outdoors helps children release energy, which allows them to focus on quieter tasks; further, the interest that nature inherently holds for children invites concentration. Finally, experiences in nature enhance the intellectual richness and complexity of children’s collaborative play (Moore, 1996). They incorporate what they learn about the natural world into their pretend play scenarios.

Social-emotional development:

Because children are increasingly cut off from the outdoors, their fears and misconceptions about nature are growing (Sobel, 1996). They often acquire their ideas from the media instead of direct contact with living things (Cohen & Horm-Wingerd, 1993). Media images are often negative, causing children to become anxious or even develop “biophobia” — a fear of the natural world and a sense of powerlessness about ecological problems (White & Stoecklin, 2008). For example, interviews with children from preschool to age nine found that their attitudes toward the natural environment (plants, animals, weather) included more expressions of fear and dislike than of appreciation, caring, or enjoyment (Simmons, 1994). Moreover, most media bombard children with the message that material goods are essential to self-fulfillment. “Research shows that children with materialistic values are less likely to engage in environmentally sustainable behavior such as recycling or conserving water” (Linn, 2010, p. 65). By contrast, “repeated, regular, and sustained positive experiences playing outdoors in the natural environment are influential for attaining sustainable behaviors and lifestyles” (Samuelson & Kaga, 2010, p. 58). Helping young children to engage with nature on a daily basis thus promotes their overall development, and benefits the planet, too.

Setting the Stage for Nature Learning

Nature learning happens naturally whenever children are outdoors. They experience and learn about nature whether enjoying free play or a group activity. Nature activities can also take place indoors, such as growing plants from seeds. In this section, we look at how you can enhance children’s learning during all these different types of experiences.