Let’s discover the magic and power of nature-based early childhood education. Explore how learning in the natural world benefits young children. Find answers to popular questions, nature-based learning activities, and ideas to add more nature-based education to your early childhood classroom or program.
What is Nature-based Early Childhood Education?
Nature-based early childhood education incorporates the natural environment and outdoor experiences to support learning, development, and exploration in children 0 to 8 years old.
Nature play and nature-based education are both approaches to engage children in natural environments. However, they have distinct differences.
Nature play focuses on unstructured, child-led exploration in outdoor spaces. Nature-based education curriculum incorporates planned nature-based learning activities alongside nature play. Educators use nature to meet specific developmental and educational goals.
Categories of Nature-Based Early Childhood Education
According to Samara Early Learning, nature-based early learning programs fall into four categories. The programs vary based on children’s and how much time is spent outdoors.
- Nature-based early childhood education programs focus on nature activities and outdoor time and serve children from 0 to 8.
- Nature-based preschools, or nature preschools, are licensed programs for 3-5-year-olds. About 1/3 of the daily schedule is spent outdoors, and nature is infused into all aspects of the program.
- In forest preschools, children spend 70-100% of the day outdoors, with the indoor space primarily serving as a shelter.
- Nature-based kindergarten includes daily outdoor time and incorporates nature into classroom learning. Students will learn using nature-based studies and materials.
Benefits of Nature-Based Learning
During nature play, children run, jump, climb, balance, and cross diverse terrains while building strength, coordination, and balance. Playing in big, open spaces also helps children develop body awareness and spatial orientation.
Unstructured time outside gives children a chance to test their abilities without the pressure of achieving any specific goal. Fresh air and sunshine support overall well-being. And a childhood filled with outdoor play builds a foundation for a lifelong active lifestyle.
Nature play nurtures language and communication in a sensory-rich environment. Children can use language to describe what they observe and experience while playing. Time outdoors is the perfect opportunity for adults to introduce new vocabulary (along with exciting nature facts!)
Unstructured time outside also fosters imagination and storytelling. These activities help children develop essential language skills in order to collaborate with others and act out their ideas.
Playing outside in nature offers a unique opportunity for children to develop social-emotional skills. Children can interact, collaborate, and develop social skills through unstructured outdoor play.
Time in nature supports self-regulation and mental well-being. Children learn to be resilient and build self-confidence as they test their abilities. Nature play promotes empathy as kids develop, observe, and interact with living creatures and the natural world.
Nature play is a catalyst for cognitive development in children! While exploring outdoors, children observe patterns in nature, develop problem-solving and reasoning skills, and uncover interconnections between living and non-living things. Nature play also inspires imaginative play while encouraging creativity and cognitive flexibility.
Nature-Based Learning Environments
Nature-based learning environments greatly enhance children’s play and learning. Use the following ideas to foster a deeper connection to nature even indoors:
Outdoor Learning Environments
Of course, a quality nature-based learning environment extends outdoors too. Here are ideas to foster a deeper connection to nature while playing outside:
- Design Outdoor Spaces: Create an inviting, child-focused outdoor space with natural elements like sand, water, mud, and trees. Children and adults should work together to care for these outdoor spaces and remove trash or broken materials.
- Outdoor Learning Centers: Set up playground learning centers for gardening, sensory play, imaginative play, bug observation, nature art, and nature loose parts.
- Learning and Exploration Materials: Take nature books, magnifying glasses, flashlights, and other materials outdoors during outside time. Have extra rain boots, ponchos, and gloves so kids can play outside in all weather. Find inspiration to play outside, even in “bad” weather, with these inspiring nature play quotes.
Any childcare classroom can be an enriching and immersive nature-based learning environment. Use these ideas to inspire children’s curiosity and nurture their connection with the natural world.
Incorporating Nature-Based Activities
Nature-based activities should be interactive and encourage curiosity, exploration, and appreciation of nature. Early childhood educators can include interactive nature-based activities in classroom schedules and lesson plans.
Nature Loose Parts Center: Encourage open-ended play with a dedicated space for children to explore and manipulate natural objects like leaves, pinecones, shells, and rocks. Learn more in our ultimate loose parts guide.
Plant Studies: Set up plant observation stations for children to learn about plant life cycles, parts of a plant, and different types of plants. Children can learn about planting seeds and caring for plants. Check out even more hands-on plant activities for early learners.
Insect Studies: Provide children with magnifying glasses, bug catchers, and insect identification guides. Children can observe and learn about insects’ characteristics, habitats, and life cycles.
Litter Cleanup: Organize classroom or school-wide litter cleanup activities to teach children about keeping the environment clean and how litter impacts nature.
Cloud Watching: Take children outside to observe and identify different types of clouds. Discuss weather patterns, cloud formations, and their relationship to weather conditions. These fiction and nonfiction cloud books for kids can extend this activity too.
Weather Studies: Set up a “weather station” near a classroom window. Take time each day to talk about the weather and even record daily observations on a chart. Along with weather books, this is a great way to introduce children to seasons, weather patterns, and weather phenomena.
Nature Sensory Bins: Create an outdoor or indoor space where children can engage in sensory play with mud, water, and sand. Rotate other natural materials such as pine cones, sticks, seashells, stones, and leaves that children can explore.
Nature Object Art: Add nature objects, such as leaves, twigs, and flowers to your art center. Children can create nature-inspired collages, leaf rubbings, or play dough sculptures.
Examples of Nature-Based Early Childhood Curricula
Not all nature-based early childhood programs are the same. There is a wide variety of approaches and curricula used. Here are some of the more common ones:
Remember, quality nature-based curricula should be adaptable. Each program should use a nature-based curriculum that supports children’s unique needs, stage of play development, interests, and local environment.
Finding a Nature-Based Early Education Program
To find a nature school in your community, research local schools and organizations with outdoor learning, nature playgrounds, or a nature-based curriculum. Check their websites or contact them to learn more.
You can also reach out to environmental organizations, nature centers, or park services for information or partnerships. Network with parents, educators, or homeschooling organizations community for valuable recommendations. Attend community events or workshops on nature education to connect with educators from nature schools.
Children deserve the chance to immerse themselves in the wonders of the natural world. Early childhood educators can cultivate children’s curiosity, creativity, and connection to the environment using nature-based education. By teaching children to appreciate nature, we instill a lifelong passion for learning and for our planet.