Thursday, September 15, 2016

Teaching Kids in Nature May be our Best Hope for the Future

Educating children in nature may be the best hope we have of righting all the ways that we have failed to be good stewards of the Earth. It is one thing to learn about nature, it is quite another thing to learn in nature.  Educational instruction in nature offers significant benefits to students. A slew of studies show that nature contributes to health and well being. Immersion in the natural world gives children access to the important developmental opportunities including sorely lacking movement and exercise.

Nature has been shown to be good for people's mental health. As Lindsay Holmes writes in the Huffington Post nature has healing powers. Exposure to nature benefits sleep, improves mood and enhances physical health. It can also inspire a sense of awe.  Teaching children in nature has been shown to benefit both students and teachers.


Humans have been evolving in nature for millennia, but we are increasingly estranged from nature. Our failure to engage nature has caused us to feel less connected to the natural world. This augurs a whole stream of adverse impacts. This includes less emotional and physical well being. The sense that we are not part of the natural world precludes our efforts to protect it. We cannot hope that children will be good stewards of the Earth if they are removed from nature.


We are increasingly focused on academic learning at increasingly young ages and this often comes at the expense of play. We are cramming information into children rather than allowing them to creatively interact with their natural environments. As quoted in a Center for Climate Safety article, a Harvard Education Letter by journalist David McKay Wilson states, "some kindergarteners spend up to six times as much time on those topics and on testing and test prep than they do in free play or ‘choice time'."

The failure to appreciate the value of play is a source of frustration for those who have studied the issue. A September 2016 Atlantic article quotes Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said that play is an important part of learning that has been show to have cognitive, physical, mental, and social-emotional benefits. “Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.” Shonkoff said.

According to the National Lekotek Center, "Research has shown that children need to play in order to learn important developmental skills, as well as develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. Play even helps children cope with pain, illness and the stresses of everyday life."

Inspired by the research many physicians are advocating for open-ended, free play. In an article in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker write, “The problem-solving that occurs in play may promote executive functioning—a higher-level skill that integrates attention and other cognitive functions such as planning, organizing, sequencing, and decision-making. Executive functioning is required not only for later academic success but for success in those tasks of daily living that all children must master to gain full independence, such as managing their belongings and traveling to unfamiliar places.”

Free play also has societal benefits. There is reason to believe that play in early childhood may even be able to reduce behavioral problems later in life. According to a 1998 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health exposure to outdoor play in preschool reduces the rates of behavioral problems at 15 and arrests and workplace problems as adults.

While play has been shown to have a host of positive impacts, when permitted in educational settings, much of this play takes place indoors. The research suggests that playing in nature may be among the most beneficial activities for children.

Old school

Nature-based education is hardly a new idea, the 19th century German educator Friedrich Froebel advocated an educational approach which emphasized play in nature. In 1916 Jenny Merrill described the early 20th-century kindergartens in the Golden Jubilee edition of The Paradise of Childhood. This included, "observation of the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, the clouds, rain and snow … shadows indoors and out-of-doors … care of living animals, [such as] a kitten … learning names of natural objects."

In North America such schools have been around for decades. New Canaan Nature Center in Connecticut in 1967 and the Arcadia Nature Preschool, founded in 1976 at Massachusetts Audubon’s sanctuary in Easthampton. Other examples include the Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee, and Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan.

New pedagogy

Efforts are now underway to expand children's exposure to nature in pedagogical settings. A recent Suzuki Foundation program is helping to get students into nature. Today there are nature preschools and forest kindergartens. Some of these schools have children outside 80 to 90 percent of the time. One of these schools is called Waldkindergarten and it is located on the Natick Community Organic Farm, outside of Boston. Kids in this school almost never go inside even when it drops below zero. They have outdoor classrooms and they engage in “forest gnome jobs”—tidying up the bakery, preparing snacks, collecting kindling, raking the outdoor block area and of course forest play. Nature preschools also teach outdoors but they also bring elements of the outdoors into the traditional classroom.

Academic achievement

While some may be concerned that academic performance may suffer from this immersion in nature, nothing could be further from the truth. As explored in a book by Wendy Banning and Ginny Sullivan in their book titled, Lens on Outdoor Learning: “The many skills children develop through play, particularly the self-control practiced and refined in imaginary play, are related to long-term academic achievement.”

Behavioral problems

Exposure to nature has pyschological and societal benefits. Outdoor play may even be able to help address the plethora of behavioral problems both in childhood and later in life.

A film about a Swiss forest kindergarten called School’s Out, by producer Rona Richter and director Lisa Molomot who is also a pediatrician reports that no behavioral problems have been observed in the school. This view is reiterated by Erin Kenny, founder of ­Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, Wash., in her book on forest kindergartens, Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls.


As explored in an Atlantic article, Jedediah Purdy a law professor at Duke explains the view that the world is a connected, interdependent whole. “The main premise here is that nothing is isolated,” says Purdy. “The world is a network of inter-permeable systems, so that what comes out of a smokestack can travel through wind, rain, groundwater, and soil, and end up in flesh.” The “Anthropocene” or “age of humans” is, in some ways, a logical extension of this view.

Purdy suggests that climate change and the global environmental crisis is, "one of these deep problems that, if we engage it in a serious way, changes us. Maybe we need to become different people in relation to the natural world. And maybe that isn’t such a wildly utopian thought: that becoming different people is something that humans do, in wrestling with deep problems."

As Purdy explains, we need to, "explore what we have in common with the rest of the living world... Valuing and relating to the non-human world is one of the richest among our cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual resources...Wordsworth, Thoreau, Muir, the Hudson River School of painters, all developed this idea: By appreciating nature, we become better people and learn how to live." It should be clear that we are in need of a shift in human consciousness one that is organically rooted nature. Our current situation is like the dreaded comprise that Purdy references, "a sugary layer of noble talk about global responsibility slathered on a world whose economies are still driving up greenhouse-gas emissions, toxicity, soil degradation, ocean acidification, species extinction, deforestation...But the scary possibility is that we may know the right thing to do for decades, talk about it on the international stage, and keep living in a way that deepens the problem" Educating kids in nature will succeed in pushing us out of our complacency and beyond the status quo. Through them ecology will be part of the culture and woven into the fabric of our political-economy. As Purdy describes it, "A politics that can pivot how we live."

If we are to become stewards of the Earth, the natural world must be seamlessly integrated into our commerce, our culture and our politics. The only way that is likely to happen is if we immerse children in nature from an early age.

Make sure to see the article titled, "Comprehensive Green School Information and Resources." It contains links to over 325 articles covering everything you need to know about sustainable academics, student eco-initiatives, green school buildings, and college rankings as well as a wide range of related information and resources. 

Learning in Nature Benefits Children and Teachers
School Program that Gets Kids out in Nature
The Value of Green Spaces to Psychological and Societal Health
Video - Research Shows that Nature is Good for Mental Health
The Importance of Science and Nature on Earth Day

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