Nature Cements the New Learning: Expanding Nature-Based Learning into the K-5 Curriculum

  • David SobelEmail author
  • Rachel Larimore
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


The increase of nature-based preschool programs in the United States, including nature preschools and forest kindergartens, has led to a growing interest in providing nature-based early childhood education (NbECE) at the elementary level. This chapter focuses on the successful expansion of nature-based early childhood education from an exemplary nature-based preschool at Chippewa Nature Center (CNC) into the Kindergarten and First Grade curriculum in Bullock Creek Public Schools in Midland, Michigan. The maturation of the CNC Nature Preschool program, and the conscientious outreach by program directors, has led to the “naturalization” of a local public school district.

We illustrate changes in public school administrator attitudes and decision-making about nature-based programming. In addition, we show how this growth in NbECE has led to improvements in child outcomes at the preschool and K-1 levels, particularly related to motivation and enthusiasm for learning, language development, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning, physical development, and executive function.


Nature-based early childhood education Nature-based preschool Forest kindergarten Language development Executive function 

The Nature-Based Early Childhood Movement

The implementation of nature-based early childhood education, particularly nature-based preschools, is a rapidly growing trend in early childhood education with only 10 programs in the United States in 2010 and now more than 250 programs nationally (Merrick, 2016). This sharp increase in nature-based preschool programs in the United States, including nature preschools and forest kindergartens, has led to a growing interest not only in articulating the benefits of these programs but also in expanding the nature-based pedagogy to the elementary level. This qualitative case study focuses on the successful expansion of Chippewa Nature Center’s (CNC) exemplary nature-based preschool program into the Kindergarten and First Grade curriculum in Bullock Creek School District in Midland, Michigan.

The purpose of this case study is to both document the maturation of the CNC Nature Preschool program and show how conscientious outreach can lead to the “naturalization” of a local public school district. The Bullock Creek School District now has four Nature Kindergarten classes and three Nature First Grades spread between two elementary buildings. Additionally, this nature-based approach has percolated upward into the upper elementary grades through collaborative programming and weeklong programs at CNC.

This has led to both changes in administrator attitudes and decision-making about nature-based programming and improved student outcomes. This successful program evolution is in contrast to many of the trends in public education over the past decade. Nationally, disturbing trends in early childhood (pre-K to third grade) have been:

  1. 1.

    The academification of early childhood programming. Kindergarten is the new first grade. Preschool is the new kindergarten. This translates into less emphasis on social emotional school readiness and more emphasis on early literacy and numeracy (Almon & Miller, 2009).

  2. 2.

    The indoorification of early childhood programming. This means children are indoors in confined spaces more of the time, and outside in natural play and learning settings less of the time. This translates into more seat time, less free or guided play, and the decrease in opportunities for gross and fine motor development (Louv, 2010; Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010).

  3. 3.

    The digitalization of children’s lives. Young children spend 8 h a day engaged with screens, (television, electronic media, cell phones) and 0.5 h per day outdoors. This translates into less social interaction with other children, less physical movement and the erosion of connectedness with the natural world (Rideout et al., 2010).


The CNC Preschool and the Bullock Creek Public Schools are consciously bucking these trends. Building on the relationship between nature-based programming and healthy child development, these early childhood programs are focused on:

  1. (a)

    Increasing motivation and enthusiasm for school through program design that aligns with children’s interests

  2. (b)

    Enhancing language development through grounding literacy in natural learning experiences

  3. (c)

    Creating the foundation for STEM (Science, Technology, Math, Engineering) learning through providing opportunities for problem-solving and sustained inquiry

  4. (d)

    Providing opportunities for a full range of physical development through regularly scheduled hikes and the creation of naturalized play areas

  5. (e)

    Developing executive functions (working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and self-regulation) through thoughtfully designed outdoor activities and challenges


This case study will demonstrate how the techniques pioneered in the CNC preschool are successfully being implemented in K-3 programming in the local public schools. This naturalization of early childhood programs is a mainstream form of childhoodnature – the weaving together of children’s lives with the natural world as opposed to the emergent paradigm of children alienated from the natural world. We hope that this case study can be used as a model for a similar rejuvenation of early childhood education in school districts around the country.

Chippewa Nature Center Preschool as Exemplary Program

The Chippewa Nature Center (CNC) Preschool has become a model of an exemplary nature preschool in the last decade. The program has grown from 24 students enrolled for the 2007–2008 school year to an anticipated 140 students in the 2016–2017 school year. CNC’s program meets the definition of a nature-based preschool, and it also receives high ratings on traditional early childhood program assessment metrics such as High Scope’s Program Quality Assessment and five-star ratings on Michigan’s quality rating improvement system.

In a previous report, Nature-based Preschool Education (Bailie, Becker-Klein, & Sobel, 2015), the authors summarized initial findings on how the Chippewa program positively impacts preschool children. (Please see CNC Preschool Profile in Appendix A.) In that report, we indicated that parents, local early childhood educators, and local school administrators were impressed with the benefit to children of nature preschool children.

Theoretical Background

Nature-Based Preschools

Nature-based early childhood education (NbECE) is a broad term that encompasses any program model that provides young children ages 0–8 extensive daily outdoor time over the course of a school year, and the curriculum’s organizing concept is nature (Larimore, 2016; Sobel, 2014). Under this larger umbrella of NbECE are programs such as nature-based preschools, forest preschools, forest kindergartens, and nature kindergartens. For this study we defined nature-based preschools as high-quality, licensed early childhood programs for 3–5-year-olds, with at least 25–50% of the class day held outside each day, including time beyond the designated play area, nature infused into the indoor spaces, and with nature as the driving theme of the curriculum (Bailie, 2010; Green Hearts, 2014; Larimore, 2011a, b; Moore, 2014). We distinguish this program model from forest preschools, sometimes referred to as forest kindergartens, by their longer periods of time outdoors (70–100%) and very limited use, if any, of indoor space (Larimore, 2016; Sobel, 2014).

The implementation of NbECE, particularly in nature-based preschools, is a rapidly growing trend in early childhood education. This rapid growth led to a first national conference for nature-based preschool professionals in 2012, the formation of a professional association created by the Natural Start Alliance in 2013, the creation of a certificate in Nature-based Early Childhood Education at Antioch University New England that same year, and many regional professional associations in the last 2 years. Despite the rapid growth in program numbers and the creation of professional networking organizations, there has been little research on the learning and teaching that occurs within these nature-based programs. Our goal with this study was to fill this gap.

Language and Literacy

Given that nature-based preschools implement a unique pedagogy, or program model, it is important to review research related to the preschool program model’s influence on child outcomes. Studies have found that child-centered/play-based programs are generally more supportive of academic outcomes than programs focused on academics (Dale, Jenkins, Mills, & Cole, 1995; Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995) and are significantly more supportive of motivation-related measures, such as willingness to attempt more challenging tasks (Stipek et al., 1995). Follow-up studies have found that vocabulary development in the early years is particularly indicative of later success (Dale et al., 1995). In addition, language, and literacy skills seem to be positively correlated to science experiences (Conezio & French, 2015; French, 2004).

STEM in Early Childhood

Similar to NbECE, science teaching and learning in early childhood has been receiving growing attention in recent years with science integrated into early learning standards on a national and state level (Greenfield, 2010). Science in early childhood not only includes content knowledge but also development of science and engineering practices, which involve both knowledge and skills (NRC, 2012), and development of dispositions toward science (Brenneman, Stevenson-Boyd, & Frede, 2009; Katz, 2010). When given the opportunity, young children generally enjoy and think they are good at science (Mantzicopoulos, Patrick, & Samarapungavan, 2008). The relationship between content knowledge, practices, and approaches to learning was succinctly captured in the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) position statement on early childhood science that stated, “learning science and engineering practices in the early years can foster children’s curiosity and enjoyment in exploring the world around them and lay the foundation for a progression of science learning in K–12 settings and throughout their entire lives” (National Science Teachers Association, 2014).

Physical Development

Many early childhood educators are concerned that the greater emphasis on seatwork in early childhood programs is having a negative effect on children’s physical development. Hanscom (2016) documents the substantial increase in children requiring occupational therapy to address problems with physical development, attributing these problems to the increasingly sedentary lives of children, and suggests outdoor play as an antidote. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia compared growth in physical development in nature-based and conventional early childhood programs and found children in the nature group had significantly more locomotor skills (Temple, Mueller, & Smith, 2015).

Executive Function

Research over the past few decades has pointed to the development of executive functioning in young children as a more important and productive goal than the development of early literacy and numeracy skills and may be a better predictor of long-term academic and social success (Blair & Razza, 2007; Cameron et al., 2012; Nayfeld, Fuccillo, & Greenfield, 2013). Therefore, focusing on the development of these executive function skills may be more appropriate early childhood program goals than academic ones. Executive function includes the subcomponents of working memory, inhibitory control, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility (D’Amore, Charles, & Louv, 2015).

Translating the Nature Preschool Approach into Public School Kindergarten and First Grade

Nature Preschool, Nature Kindergarten, and Nature First Grade are program models that provide young children, ages 3–4, 5, and 6 respectively, extensive daily outdoor time unless the weather is dangerous, and nature is curriculum’s organizing concept.

Chippewa Nature Preschool

Chippewa Nature Center (CNC) is a private nonprofit just outside the city limits of Midland, Michigan, a town of approximately 40,000 people. CNC’s nature-based preschool started in 2007 as one classroom using an existing building on the nature center grounds. In 2009, the program moved to two classrooms in a newly built LEED Gold-certified building, a certification verifying the buildings energy efficiency, which is complete with extensive natural light and a rustic wood-paneled interior. In 2016 the program expanded to include the original 2007 program space. The preschool is situated on 1148 acres of diverse habitats including woodlands, wetlands, rivers, and upland fields. The main building includes two fenced-in natural outdoor play areas surrounded by a rustic rail fence, which enclose the preschool in the front and the back, while the original site includes one-fenced play area.

The three classrooms house 8 class sessions and currently serve 140 students. The program is tuition-based but provides financial assistance to approximately half of the students, including funding through Michigan’s Great Start Readiness program for at-risk 4-year-olds. Each class has 16–18 children with three teachers with a diversity of backgrounds in both early childhood and environmental education. Family involvement is a priority at CNC events for the whole school throughout the year, as well as parent education opportunities.

Children in the half-day program at CNC’s Nature Preschool start their day outside in a natural play area. After spending 45 min to 1 h in unstructured play, the class meets at the “stump circle” for a large group time before exploring one of the many ecosystems and destinations available at the nature center. The exploration beyond the play area ranges from searching for frogs at the pond to searching for missing letters in the forest. In other words, these activities vary between learning in, learning about, and learning with nature (Warden, 2015). After the hike, the class returns to the preschool building where the children transition to snack time which is served family style, followed by an hour of choice time where they can choose among the activities available in the classroom, small group time for a more focused activity, and a final large group meeting. The indoor space and the structure for large and small group time are guided by Creative Curriculum®, the curriculum CNC uses in conjunction with the nature-based approach. (See description of program in Appendix A.)

Bullock Creek Schools

Based on 4 years of successful preschool operation, and responding to parents who started to ask when a nature-based kindergarten would be opened, Chippewa Nature Center began exploring collaboration with the Bullock Creek Public Schools. In 2011, first author Larimore approached Charlie Schwedler, Bullock Creek Superintendent, about developing a partnership to extend the nature-based approach into the elementary school. The two established a Nature School Exploration Committee, made up of a combination of eight administrators, teachers, and board members to consider implementation of a nature-based kindergarten. The goal was a kindergarten program that implemented the key nature-based elements including daily outdoor experiences, hands-on, real-world learning, and intentional integration of nature as a tool to achieve curriculum goals.

The original plan generated by the Committee was to implement one section of kindergarten in August 2012 at Floyd Elementary, a Title I school with approximately 70% of the students receiving free and reduced lunch and located about 6 miles from CNC. This location was appealing because of its 30-acre, primarily wooded property. However, since parent response was so great, three sections of nature kindergarten were offered that fall. In year 2 of the program, the district added a nature kindergarten section at Pine River Elementary, the elementary school located across the street from CNC. Since its implementation in the 2012–2013 school year, the Nature Kindergarten program has grown to include one transitional kindergarten section, four kindergarten sections, and three First Grade sections which began at Floyd Elementary School in the 2015–2016 school year (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Logo for Nature Kindergarten programs in Bullock Creek Schools

Nature Kindergarten and Nature First Grade in Practice

What does a Nature Kindergarten and First Grade look like in practice? (The following description is substantially taken from Larimore (2015), Growing with the Children: Bringing Nature-Preschool Practices to Elementary Schools.) To start, the students go outside for a substantial part of every class day. (Rain or shine, fall, winter, spring, except in dangerous weather.) These excursions may have a science focus, relate to reading they’re doing in class, or focus on math. No matter the activity, the children are experiencing their school property throughout the school year and building a connection with the outdoors. Once a week, a CNC educator visits the kindergarten classes to lead the day’s outdoor hike. This allows for the modeling of outdoor activities that the kindergarten teachers might not be comfortable with, as well as sharing content that might be outside the classroom teacher’s knowledge.

Indoors, the teachers integrate nature into daily lessons. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers and CNC educator work together to develop the scope and sequence for the year based on seasonal events and the state-mandated curriculum requirements. This planning time includes selecting books for reading times that relate to the seasonal theme. Math lesson planning includes seasonal ideas for taking math outdoors and ideas for natural materials that can be used as manipulatives. Writing assignments are outlined that allow children to reflect on the outdoor experiences. In other words, the teachers plan with intentionality on how to integrate nature into as many of the classroom activities as possible.

In September, for example, the teachers spend 2 weeks focusing on insects. Outdoor time includes dressing a student up as an insect to discuss the main characteristics of an insect; searching for insects using basic equipment like nets, sheets, and bug boxes; and later in the unit, collecting loose parts (e.g., leaves, sticks, acorns) for building their own insects.

Indoors, their outdoor experiences help the students create a thinking map to compare and contrast insects, such as a bee and a butterfly. Books that focus on insects and insect life cycles are used in both the large group and small group reading times. Work stations include matching photos of stages of the insect life cycle with the appropriate words, sorting images of arthropods into insects or noninsects based on the number of legs, cutouts of body parts that they put together to create their own insect, drawing their own insect, and other similar independent work stations. The general theme of insects – selected in September because of the plethora of insects outside to see and touch – gets integrated into virtually every aspect of the classroom (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Thinking map of differences between bees and butterflies

Even the indoor classroom environment has a natural look with the traditional primary color posters of letters and numbers replaced with posters of Michigan animals corresponding to a particular number, letter posters that include images of Michigan plants and animals, and calendars that feature images of the Michigan outdoors. While there are still typical chairs and tables in the room, the plastic chairs at the group meeting area have been replaced with tree stumps. Chunks of wood have been drilled with holes to hold pencils and markers. When possible, conventional components of the program are reimagined. Sometimes, the classes have their holiday party outside. How many schools do you know in the Upper Midwest that would have a party outside in December?

Research Methods and Data Collection

Research Methods

This current study emerged as the continuation of a previous study (Bailie et al., 2015) that investigated the reliability and validity of the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment tool for comparing child outcomes between a nature-based preschool and traditional preschool model. That study found the tool not to be reliable and led to the identification of more pressing research lines of questioning which are addressed in this current study. In addition, the authors found evidence of successful expansion of the nature-based approach into the elementary school and wanted to explore these phenomena more carefully. For this study, we chose to focus on the following research questions:

  • What were the elements of collaboration and implementation that led to successful expansion of the nature-based approach from preschool to kindergarten and first grade?

  • Are there benefits from the nature-based programs identified by the elementary teachers and administrators and are there consistent patterns in the observed benefits?

Data Collection and Analysis

Data were collected over 9 months through classroom and outdoor observations, review of program documents, and interviews with Chippewa Nature Center administrators and teachers and Bullock Creek Nature Kindergarten, Nature First Grade, upper elementary school teachers, and administrators. The goal of teacher and administrator interviews was to explore more deeply their perceptions of the impact of the nature-based approach in both preschool and the elementary grades on students and teaching.

Four preschool teachers, six elementary teachers, many parents, two CNC administrators, three Bullock Creek administrators, and four intermediate school district administrators who work directly with early childhood efforts in the county were interviewed either individually or in small groups. Interviews used a semi-structured format allowing researchers to pursue new emerging ideas and lasted 30–60 min. The interviews and focus groups were audio recorded, and the researchers took extensive field notes during the focus groups and interviews. Given the first author’s relationship to the interviewees, she was not present during the interviews. Upon completion of fieldwork, the interviews were coded to illuminate key emergent issues and answer the research questions.

Findings: Administrative Practices that Led to Successful Implementation

One of the goals of this study was to identify administrative practices that led to and supported the success of implementation of nature-based approaches in the elementary school setting. We identified administrative practices at CNC’s preschool program itself and then identified successful implementation practices in implementation in the Bullock Creek Schools.

Preschool Program Development

From an analysis of interviews and historical documents, we extracted four practices that appear to have guided the successful development of Nature Preschool within the Chippewa Nature Center and the Midland community.
  • First, CNC staff worked with the local early childhood community from the beginning to establish Nature Preschool as an integral part of the community’s preschool offerings. This started through a partnership with a local nonprofit to share operational duties, which continued for the first 3 years of operation. In addition, administrators served on countywide early childhood committees and staff attended professional development with other preschool programs. This outreach to the community from the beginning said, “We’re a little different, but we want to be part of what makes this a great community to live in.”

  • Second, nature center administrators saw preschool as an integral part of the nature center’s mission from the beginning. CNC’s Executive Director, Dick Touvell, along with the Board of Directors and administrative staff, made sure the preschool wasn’t a stand-alone entity, but rather a way to broaden and deepen the center’s audience and membership.

  • Third, CNC Preschool secured public and private funding to assist low-income families who otherwise might not be able to attend the program. It’s easy for nature preschool to appeal to and serve a middle-class audience. It’s hard to attract low-income families who can’t afford the “luxury” of a nature-based program. Funding through Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program for at-risk 4-year-olds, Midland County’s Great Start Collaborative for at-risk 3-year-olds, and private funding from individuals and groups like the Dow Chemical Company allowed for CNC to provide some level of assistance to half of the children in the program.

  • Fourth, CNC administrators took a slow and steady approach and made a deliberate decision to grow the program incrementally. While the program was at capacity in year 2, it took 3 or 4 years for the Chippewa Nature Preschool to become established, highly desired by the community, and recognized by other early childhood professionals. Only once the program was stable after 4 years did the CNC preschool director start to pursue expansion into the public schools.

Expansion into the Public Schools

A natural question of nature preschool parents is, “This is great, but what happens when my kid goes on to public school?” The partnership between CNC and Bullock Creek was, in part, a response to this question. In light of the fact that other NbECE programs may face this same question, we identified five key strategies used to naturalize the programming in Bullock Creek Schools:

  1. 1.

    School Leadership. Local public school officials were invited to visit and understand nature preschool once CNC preschool was established. Larimore recruited the local school superintendent to participate in preschool planning efforts, visit the nature preschool early on, and begin dialogue about integrating a nature-based approach in the public schools.

  2. 2.

    External Funding. Recognizing that Nature Kindergarten and First Grade would require additional staffing, professional development, and evaluation, CNC staff assisted Bullock Creek in securing external funding to support the change process. The funding also supported a weekly visit by a CNC naturalist to model the nature-based approach during the daily outdoor time.

  3. 3.

    Nature Center/Public School Partnership. CNC conducted extensive nature education programs at all elementary levels – field trips, weeklong programs, and naturalist programs in the elementary schools – with Bullock Creek Schools. In addition to supporting the Nature Kindergarten and First Grade programs, the funding supported two field trips to CNC for every elementary classroom in the district, weeklong programs at CNC for every Third, Fourth, and Fifth grade classroom in the district, and monthly naturalist visits for every elementary class at Floyd Elementary school. This programming grew parallel to the growth of the CNC Preschool and developed trust and working relationships with school officials.

  4. 4.

    Professional Development. CNC offered extensive professional development to public school teachers. Early on, public school teachers attended the CNC Nature Preschool Institute, a 4-day workshop on the nature-based approach. As the elementary school programs were implemented, CNC provided tailored professional development for the Nature Kindergarten, Nature First, and a few upper elementary teachers. In addition, time was dedicated to on-site curriculum planning between CNC staff and public school teachers.

  5. 5.

    Parent Education and Involvement. CNC staff placed a premium on parent education and involvement. Recognizing the unique approach to early childhood education, CNC staff worked, in collaboration with Bullock Creek teachers, to educate parents about what to expect – children out in all weathers, muddy clothes, wanting to bring animals indoors, etc. In addition, regular family nights, parent-teacher conferences, and ongoing parent communication developed strong parent engagement. This parent engagement led to enthusiasm about Nature Kindergarten, including regular communication with the superintendent and attendance at school board meetings, and contributed to the change in the local public schools.


That same parent engagement and enthusiasm continues to be a force for change in the school district. The current superintendent of the Bullock Creek district provided a prime example as he recounted a recent conversation with a parent:

I was at a basketball game last week, standing by the entrance. A high school friend of mine asked, ‘What about Nature Second Grade?’ When I asked why he was asking, he said, ‘I’ve just seen that my daughter is so inquisitive – flipping things over, so interested in learning. My three older kids are not like this. She wants to discover more. She wants to learn more.

The partnership between CNC and Bullock Creek can serve as a model for the naturalization of the K-3 curriculum and practices in other school districts throughout the United States.

Findings: Benefits to Children of NbECE Programming in Preschool, Kindergarten, and First Grade

Our research found that parents, teachers, and administrators reported benefits to children that naturally sorted into five distinct themes. These same themes described outcomes for children both at Chippewa Nature Center and for children in the Bullock Creek Schools. These five themes are (1) increased motivation and enthusiasm for school; (2) enhanced language development; (3) increased science, technology, math, engineering (STEM) learning; (4) improved physical development; and (5) development of executive function capacities.

Motivation and Enthusiasm for School

Changes in kindergarten in the last two decades to emphasize academic skills and standardized tests have led to a reduction in children’s physical movement and creative cognitive opportunities. In Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, the authors summarize:

Kindergarten has changed radically in the last two decades. Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests. In an increasing number of kindergartens, teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. These practices, which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching. It is increasingly clear that they are compromising both children’s health and their long-term prospects for success in school. (Almon & Miller, 2009)

However, teachers and administrators at the preschool and kindergarten levels consistently reported that parents regularly comment on how their children are engaged, happy, and enthusiastic about attending the nature-based programs.

At the Chippewa Nature Preschool, one parent’s comment was illustrative of general parental enthusiasm and child engagement:

At the end of each day children run to tell their parents of the adventures they had. “Mom, I found 10 worms today!” or “Guess what, Dad, we saw a dead deer carcass today!” Regularly we hear parents raving about how their child wowed dinner guests with natural history trivia. The ability to recite nature facts is not our primary goal, but it shows children’s desire to learn and their ability to absorb information.

One of the major goals of preschool education should be to develop a “readiness to learn” and an excitement about school. In all the parent interviews we have conducted, this excitement about school is a recurrent theme.

At the Bullock Creek Schools, parent and teacher comments were similar. One upper grade teacher, who was also a parent of a Nature Kindergarten student, suggested the general parent sentiment:

(I) had a daughter in the very first Nature Kindergarten and she is in third grade now. (My husband and I) loved the organization of it, loved inside and outside learning happening…My oldest daughter did the traditional kindergarten, and at the end of both of their kindergarten years, one who had nature-based and one who did not, both came out ready for first grade. My Nature Kindergarten daughter loved coming to school, loved her teacher, and she continues to enjoy the outdoors.

Another teacher, who was also a Nature Kindergarten parent, echoed these sentiments:

My son is in Nature Kindergarten right now. My daughter loved it (three years ago.) For both of my kids, it lets them still have that creativity, where usually (the curriculum is) so structured. Nature Kindergarten brings that out in them. I don’t see that it is distracting from learning. My son loves the outside, so his ability to talk about nature is phenomenal. It was quite a difference when my daughter transitioned into first grade. That was tough! They sat there all day, and she honestly did not like school that much in the first grade…great to know that next year he will have Nature First Grade as well.

In fact, parent advocacy was one of the primary drivers of the implementation of Nature First Grade in 2015–2016. Parents saw the difference in the school experience for their kindergartners and wanted the experience to continue for their first graders and expressed that interest to the teachers, principals, and superintendents on a regular basis. The new superintendent (as of summer 2015), who was previously a middle school administrator, has changed his attitude about Nature Kindergarten this past year:

(When it started) I wasn’t sure about the nature-based approach. My own kids, who are now in first and third grade – we could have put them in the Nature Kindergarten. Instead we chose the traditional approach. Now, I regret that decision. If I could meet with every parent considering kindergarten, I would try to convince them that there’s lots of positives in that approach. If I knew then what I know now, I’d put my own kids in Nature Kindergarten.

In addition to enthusiasm in the interviews, the Floyd Elementary principal noted kindergarten attendance was 90% in the 1st year of the nature program, 88% attendance in the 2nd year, and 95% in the 3rd year. If children are enthusiastic about school, they’re less likely to find reasons to be absent. Quality early childhood education develops a “readiness to learn” and an excitement about school, and motivation and enthusiasm for school was a recurrent theme in the interviews we conducted.

Language Development

In both settings, teachers and parents commented on the increased vocabulary and the increased receptive and expressive language of children in these nature-based programs.

At the Chippewa Nature Preschool, one of the questions that emerged from the study was,

Is it possible that the nature-based program at CNC actually enhances language development as much as or even more than conventional, high-quality, indoor programs? And what might be the mechanisms for this language enhancement? The answers to this question suggested three different possible impacts of the nature-based approach.

The Development of “Scientific” or Nature-Based Vocabulary
Across the board, everyone agreed that CNC children have a greater scientific word bank available to them. A quick sampling of the kinds of words that parents and teachers indicated children use are:

Hibernation, vernal pools, talons, abdomen, thorax, decomposition, carcass, exoskeleton, metamorphosis, agitating—just like in my washer.

And here’s an example of word sophistication beyond normal expectations for children this age:

Two bright-eyed four-year old girls sat patiently waiting for the speech therapist to ask her next question. The therapist’s focus for the day was the “b” sound, so she placed an image of a bird on the table in front of the girls. She then pointed and asked, “What’s this?” The two four-year olds proudly answered, “Woodpecker!” They were correct. The therapist was confused—most four year olds would have said bird. What the therapist had forgotten was that she wasn’t working with typical four year olds. She was working with students in Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool. (Larimore, 2011b)

English-Language Learners (ELL) Do Better in a Nature-Based Context

Because of the materials-based aspect of nature learning, children who are learning English as a second language may be more successful in a nature-based than a traditional preschool. Simply, the word to referent relationship is clearer when the spoken/written word is presented in conjunction with the real thing rather than with an image of the thing. This was illustrated with the language development of a Korean child who came to the CNC program with hardly any English:

For our English language learner, he didn’t talk a lot in the beginning, but he really connected to grasshoppers and that opened the door to language and to making friends. He would collect and count dozens in a day, and making friends further helped his vocabulary. He would only say, “grasshopper,” and then one day he said, “Kennedy, I have 3 grasshoppers.” A whole sentence! Now his expressive language is exploding, because he was interested in the grasshoppers and could connect to other children through them. He felt successful and felt like he belonged. He collects a lot– now it’s worms, and he wanted a zipper bag for his tadpoles. I don’t think he had any experience with nature before he came here, because his family is not connected with nature.

Language Learning, Beyond Just Science Vocabulary, Is Enhanced Through Nature

There was disagreement about this hypothesis among early child professionals when asked this question. Our speculation is that because outdoor social nature play is “deeper,” in other words, lasts longer and is more sustained by the children, that there may be greater language expression and reception by the children. The contrary point of view was that child-initiated play is less likely to increase vocabulary because there are fewer adult-directed vocabulary lessons. We speculate that because the children encounter a greater array of natural history surprises – turkeys in the woods, birds landing on them while sitting quietly, the swarm of ants when you stumble upon an ant hill, and new flowers which weren’t in the same place last week – there may be more triggering of questions and more receptivity to teacher language.

To assess the validity of this hypothesis, we are currently engaged in continued research to assess vocabulary growth among CNC students using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and other measures of early childhood language development.

At the Bullock Creek Schools, the focus changes from the preschool emphasis on language development and letter and number learning to a greater focus on early reading and writing in kindergarten and first grade. However, the same principles apply. These principles are that (Fig. 3):
Fig. 3

Vocabulary development with nature words

  1. (a)

    Reading and writing should emerge out of the context of a rich language development experience which includes learning songs, finger plays, outdoor-guided movement, and social discourse during nature play.

  2. (b)

    Reading and writing is most enhanced when it is grounded in real-world experiences. Reading about frogs is much more exciting after the children hold frogs in their hands. Looking through natural history books is more compelling when a child is trying to identify something she found in the forest.

  3. (c)

    Vocabulary development is encouraged when words are presented in concert with actual things and phenomenon. Children are likely to remember the unfamiliar word “chrysalis” when the word is presented in conjunction with the beautiful green and gold package attached to the milkweed leaf.


The principles are illustrated in comments from a current Nature Kindergarten teacher:

I’m surprised at the amount of their vocabulary—it’s amazing—and they’re just getting this at school. Bears going thru torpor, frogs brumating. Insects–it’s not just a bug—they know the body parts, and the functions of the body parts. Then this relates back to writing. In winter, when we’re reading the All About Book, the children are recalling body parts and then they don’t just talk about it, they write about it.

This comment is echoed by a Nature First Grade teacher. She comments on the vocabulary of the children as they come to her from Kindergarten:

Their vocabulary is so much broader and expanded. Some of the words they know already as first graders, a lot of adults don’t even know. If we have parents come sit through nature conversations, adults will say I didn’t know that was that, or that word. I could feel right away at Open House, when I met with parents, there was an excitement about the nature program. They just embraced it.

One of the keys to the engagement in literacy is the bridging between the outdoor experience and text. One of the Nature Kindergarten teachers explains how this happens:

It’s not just we read about it, we watch videos–they’re looking with their own eyes. When we find something outside that they’ve read about…their interest skyrockets, and the concept comes alive for them. It’s not that they saw a picture, they touched it, they were able to see it. Those experiences they don’t forget. ‘Is this a tadpole or not?’ Nature cements the new learning.

This same teacher describes how the nature/literacy connection has been effective with children with emotional and learning challenges:

We’ve had one girl for two years. When she first came to the school, she’d hide under tables, spit, scream. She had no diagnosis but she was eventually diagnosed ADHD. But nature time was her time to shine and she became a leader during outdoors time. So we started to call her “Nature Girl.” Whatever happened during the day, whatever challenges she had, there was always nature time. That gave her confidence. She’s in first grade now and doing awesome, she’s reading above grade level. That nature piece gave her solidity. We capitalized on her leadership during nature time.

To summarize this relationship between nature and literacy, it’s instructive to see the parallel experience in one of the nature-inspired Kindergartens implementing Forest Days in Vermont. As in Michigan, the emphasis on early literacy has upped the stakes. Kindergarten literacy standards are much more demanding than they were 10 years ago. Just within the Reading Informational Texts section of the Common Core State Standards, there are ten individual standards that students are expected to meet before the end of the Kindergarten year. These expectations range anywhere from the following:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R1.K.1 – With prompting and support, (children) ask and answer questions about key details in a text

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.R1.K.10 – (Children) actively engage in group reading activities with purpose and understanding

  • Eliza Minnucci, Vermont public school Kindergarten teacher, says that because her students have become enthralled with being in the woods and figuring out what they’re finding, they are compelled to engage with nonfiction texts (field guides) to answer their questions. They are reading with “purpose and understanding.” She describes that:

Prior to Forest Fridays, finding the right non-fiction texts that were engaging and meaningful to my students was daunting. Forest Fridays provided real-life connections and inspiration for these students to engage with non-fiction texts. I recently spent a considerable percentage of my classroom budget on more non-fiction books and pamphlets that provide information about the flora and fauna in our woods because of my students’ intense interest. (Sobel & Hopeman, 2014)

Both Michigan and Vermont teachers and parents are clear that these real-life experiences are much more potent, much more engaging, than just reading about these same processes in a book. When the reading and the real-world experience align, the learning is enhanced. Both the CNC Preschool teachers and the Floyd and Pine River Kindergarten and First Grade teachers consistently work to find literature for classroom reading that connects with experiences the children have encountered outside.

STEM Learning

Parents and early childhood professionals who visit both CNC and Bullock Creek Schools consistently comment on the striking examples of problem-solving and self-directed inquiry that they observe. In the current atmosphere of concern for encouraging a disposition to science, technology, engineering, and math learning, it makes sense to look at how those dispositions are cultivated in nature-based early childhood programs.

In the film “School’s Out: Lessons from a Swiss Forest Kindergarten” (School’s Out, 2014), there’s a scene where a group of children are trying to design a pathway so a ball will travel a curved path down a hill, rather than run straight down the hill. The underlying question is: How can we change the direction of travel so the ball follows the curve to our desired destination? What an excellent engineering challenge! The boys scavenge branches from the surrounding woods to create barriers to deflect the path of the ball. The ball hops over the barrier. They need to figure out how to slow the speed of the ball and create higher barriers. The boys are deeply invested in solving this very real-world problem.

At the Chippewa Nature Preschool, two related examples were identified. One visiting early childhood administrator made a comparison between what she sees at CNC and other early childhood programs:

There could be more inquiry-based language outside, and a greater length of engagement of outdoor play at CNC compared to indoor programs. They are examining under a rock for 30 minutes. In high quality programs inside and out we have open-ended activities, but the Chippewa children appear to do more problem solving. They are trying to figure out how to move rocks. How do we move these rocks? I wonder what rope might do, we can tie rope to the rock. It’s not moving, what else could we do? It’s problem solving, it’s inquiry, it’s hypothesis. I don’t see as much testing inside the classroom, it is more pretend play.

Whereas the above experience was self-directed, the teachers at CNC also create experiences that lead to inquiry. This past year, the teachers arranged to have a road-killed deer carcass placed in the woods so they could watch what happened to it. They visited it regularly and also set up a motion sensor trail camera to record visitations to the carcass. The teachers described:

Right after the deer was dumped, we saw it was newly dead, and we visited it about once a week to see what it looked like as it decomposed. They were asking many questions. Why is it disappearing? What’s eating it? We watched it all the way down to a pile of fur and bones strewn through the woods. They got to see coyotes dragging it away, scavengers like hawks and skunks pecking at it.

This process opens up the dialogue. We don’t have a (predetermined) word list. Instead the words emerge out of the process. We use technical terms like decomposition, decomposers, predators, prey – all scientific words that usually don’t come up till 5th or 6th grade. And the children start to understand cycles because they’ve seen them. They’re developing their own definitions based on those experiences.

This combination of self-directed and teacher-initiated scientific inquiry lays the foundation for an interest in STEM learning in the elementary grades.

In the Bullock Creek Schools, STEM learning, especially in the city that hosts the corporate headquarters of the Dow Chemical Company, is a highly valued commodity. Doesn’t it make sense then, to identify educational approaches that support a disposition toward science and inquiry learning in the early years?

In a grant proposal to support the expansion of Nature K and 1st Grade in the Bullock Creek Schools, administrators made this case.

Using Nature to Connect Children to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Research has provided evidence that outdoor time improves recall of information and creative problem solving, and indications are that it also impacts outcomes in math and science learning. If we expect children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, they need to have real, hands-on “wow” moments that build an emotional connection. The first three years of the program demonstrated that Nature Kindergarten supports excellence in teaching and learning, thereby enabling students to realize their full potential.

High quality education is about being relevant to students, building skills rather than being able to regurgitate facts, and inspiring a love for learning. This is especially true when building a love for science, technology, engineering, and math. Nature Kindergarten with its hands-on, real-world approach does just that, and now we’d like to extend this program to the first grade.

This sounds convincing, but what are the actualities of this kind of practice? Parents and teachers provide the living and breathing examples. The examples that follow are examples of both child-initiated and teacher-directed science activities integrated with literacy, math, and engineering.

Teeter-Totter. When administrators say “technology” they usually mean “computers,” but in early childhood, good old-fashioned building things and taking them apart is just as important. Creating a disposition to engineering and technology in early childhood comes out of making string telephones, folding paper airplanes, and figuring out how to construct a catapult. A Nature K teacher describes a child-initiated “technology” problem-solving activity. “They made a teeter totter on V’s in a tree, but the branch kept breaking. They realized they needed a stronger branch–they figured it out together. They got a longer and thicker stick. They do a lot of problem solving, and self-problem solving. It is self-taught, they are having to think things out and plan things.”

Build Shelters Like Animals. Building structures inherently appeals to students, and again, there’s lots of engineering learning embedded in figuring out how to make structures stand up. Rather than forbidding picking up sticks and stick play, it’s valuable to encourage using sticks as “loose parts,” as building materials. Another Nature K teacher describes, “We go out in fall, and I challenge the children to build shelters like animals, but bigger structures…big enough for children to get inside of. They chose a skinny tree, propped up six or seven sticks, and then it would fall down. What’s happening? Let’s look at other structures, I suggested, let’s compare. They realized it was the size of the tree. They chose a different tree –fatter and more slightly bent. They rebuilt and it was successful!”

Magnets. One of the first grade teachers was concerned that the nature-based approach was too play oriented and not rigorous enough to fulfill the curriculum demands of first grade. “I have to be honest. At first I was skeptical, and I was afraid we weren’t hitting that core curriculum hard enough for first grade, I didn’t feel like we were challenging them cognitively. For me, there were a lot of games involved and they were learning games, but I don’t know if kids were truly getting it.

But then we also did a unit on magnets, and she (CNC staff member) came up with great games where they had N and S around their necks and they played elbow tag where they could repel or attract each other. That game was really meaningful to them–they understood that. You could take it back into the classroom. That part was interesting. If we can keep tweaking the games (to make them connect to the curriculum) then every year we will get better and better.”

Tapping a Sugar Maple Tree. One of the true tests of the effectiveness of curriculum is whether children bring things from school back home. Do they talk about and try out things they learned in school in their backyards? After the maple sugaring activities in school, one parent described this transfer of learning:

Yesterday they (my children) were trying to tap a tree. They tried screwdrivers and hammers – neat to see them trying to do that at home. They got a little leakage from the screwdriver. They were able to find the maple tree, because my son learned that the branches go like this, the opposite way. Together with their knowledge of that they were able to find the right tree. They did great.

The results of this approach seem to be bearing fruit. The current superintendent reports that the scores on the state science curriculum tests at “Floyd Elementary were twice the state average, and even higher at Pine River Elementary,” though it’s unclear whether these results are caused by the nature-based approaches.

But it’s clear that the teachers and administrators think they’re heading in the right direction. The current superintendent articulates how the nature-based approach is getting children invested in STEM learning. “We’re raising the level of their interest in science. Our K-5 instruction has had so much emphasis on the 3 R’s that it has pushed science and social studies to the side. Now we’re bringing science to the front with the 3 R’s integrated. This helps students think about things in science. We’re building a desire in a student for why we use the Pythagorean theorem, why we use different approaches.”

Physical Development

Many early childhood educators are concerned that the greater emphasis on seatwork and worksheets in early childhood programs has a negative effect on children’s physical development. In her recent book, Balanced and Barefoot, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom documents the substantial increase in children requiring occupational therapy to address problems with physical development. She attributes these problems to the increasingly sedentary lives of children and the emphasis on sitting and being quiet in early childhood classrooms. Her solution? Greater movement diversity on a daily basis:

When children are restricted in seated positions for many hours, such as baby devices and…by unrealistic rules for older children to sit for long periods… it is hard for them to develop and maintain adequate strength and control…. Therefore, it is important for your children to experience frequent play opportunities that challenge them to move their bodies against the forces of gravity…

(T)his can be achieved through plenty of outdoor play. Lifting heavy rocks to build a dam, climbing trees, scaling a rope ladder, digging at the beach, pumping on a swing, and biking are all great examples of children playing and challenging their strength at the same time. (Hanscom, 2016)

This sentiment was echoed by one of the Midland elementary principals when he said, “Our children are not programmed to sit through one hour of church, much less seven hours of school.”

At the Chippewa Nature Preschool, teachers and administrators have all commented on the value of the program for increasing the gross motor development and the physical endurance of children. In a previous report (Bailie et al., 2015), we reported that the superintendent of Bullock Creek School District noted how much farther children could walk by the end of the school year after participating in nature walks. CNC parents described children’s ability to be outside longer because they hike every day.

During one 30-min observation of an outdoor play period at the beginning of the CNC school day in November, we observed this diversity of gross motor activity (Figs. 4 and 5):
Fig. 4

Diversity of gross motor activity during nature play

Fig. 5

Children as coyotes stalking wild turkeys

  • Balancing on one foot, with boots on the wrong feet

  • Children running and chasing each other

  • One child rolling up in a jump rope held by another child

  • Riding on scooters

  • Shoveling sand onto slide and then trying to climb up

  • Jumping off stumps

  • Scooping and dumping while operating a miniature truck

  • Child persisting in trying to balance on one foot

  • Rhythmic banging on aluminum sheet frame

  • Balance walking on tree trunks on the ground

  • Throwing and kicking a ball

  • Flopping in and out of the hammock

  • Play fishing modeled by teacher

  • Running up and down a dirt hill

  • Mixing and pouring in mud kitchen

Similarly, on an outdoor hike that started out as a coyote game and turned into wild turkey stalking, one author observed children quietly crouching behind trees to watch the turkeys, get down on all fours and crawl through the woods to stalk the turkeys, run fast in open areas to catch up with the turkeys, creep through a thicket and protect their eyes from lashing branches, lie down like coyotes to take a rest after all that running, and pretend to nibble on sticks/food because they weren’t able to catch the turkeys. It was the kind of active movement diversity that occupational therapist Hanscom prescribes as essential for healthy physical development.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Victoria in British Columbia used the Test of Gross Motor Development Second (TGMD-2) to compare growth in physical development in nature-based and conventional early childhood programs. Researchers found that, “the Nature Kindergarten group improved their loco-motor skills significantly more than the Regular Kindergarten group. These findings suggest that time in the outdoors at school promotes loco-motor skill development” (Temple et al., 2015).

It appears that CNC educators are providing the opportunities for active whole body activity that will lead to healthy physical development in these 3- and 4-year-old students.

At the Bullock Creek Schools, physical development is normally the domain of the Physical Education teacher. But in this era of rapidly increasing obesity rates, and an understanding of the relationship between physical and cognitive development, it behooves elementary school teachers to think about integrating physical development into the design of their programs.

The Bullock Creek Nature K and first grade teachers understand that the increased movement and exercise components of being outside each day improves the capacity of children to focus, pay attention, and engage with the cognitive challenges of literacy and math. They also understand that it decreases problematic behaviors and increases the engagement of children with special needs.

The example cited about the young child who hid under tables and screamed is illustrative. The teacher commented, “The nature piece gave her solidity.” By which she meant that being able to move and explore outside helped to ground her. And as another Nature K teacher commented about many of the children, “For the fidgety little ones, nature makes a difference.” If you doubt the truth in this, visit a normal elementary school for a day and see how you feel after 6 h of mostly sitting in your seat, except for going to lunch and out to recess (if the school still allows recess).

The Floyd Elementary School principal confirmed this same relationship when he said:

Now that we have Nature Kindergartens, we’re finding that the absenteeism rate for these children has decreased. They’re coming to school more. The Nature Kindergarten has allowed us to do full inclusion for our ADHD students. Rarely do we get a referral when kids are outside at nature time. And our autistic and hypersensitive students don’t have issues outside and we’ve noticed a diminishment of hypersensitivity back in the classroom. (Bailie et al., 2015)

One Nature K teacher illustrated a specific example of the benefits for a special student:

Last year I had a student who had special needs. He received OT and PT and speech. Walking on an uneven bumpy trail was difficult for him, but by the end of the year, he was much more able to walk and have motor planning to get over logs. The OT says that, handwriting is still a struggle, but there was an improvement in that even. I attribute it to being outside, doing daily physical practice, like picking up seeds off the ground, and having fun and playing while doing those things.

A Nature K teacher extended this idea to all her students saying:

When kids are moving, not when they’re sitting, you see them learning in a different way…. It’s easy to say sit down and write and read this, but that is not what is best for kids. Outside where they are moving, the moving is huge. They get that by being out in woods, where they all climb over a log in the woods. They get daily opportunities to develop gross motor skills and that increases their fine motor development.

This greater emphasis on physical movement and being outside in all weather is also spreading into the upper grades, both through student advocacy and teachers’ understanding of the relationship between movement and learning.

This has led to the implementation of a Salmon in the Classroom project in third grade, a Government program connected to the nature trail, and the fifth grade creating their own outdoor classroom (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Outdoor classroom setting for 5th grade

Though constrained by her concerns about her students’ test performance, one 5th grade teacher described:

We took trees that were down and cut them into benches and created an outdoor learning area. I used it in fall, in spring, and a little bit in the winter. I have a vision I want to be like Nature K, but I have to follow my gut with the testing.

This tension between what the teachers know is best for students and a concern about test scores in a recurrent theme with these upper elementary teachers. Fifth grade teachers commented, “[The nature-based approach] brings back the excitement of school. For example, boys learn so much better hands-on. A lot of them struggle with writing, but when we get them out there, they are writing because they are outside. It’s that learning in action again. When a lot of them are contained to a classroom, they are not focusing on what is going on…I notice when we hang the bags (math challenges) in the tree and we are moving between the exercises, that the students as a whole, they tend to be able to attend to the task.”

This emphasis on the importance of daily physical activity (not just during Gym class) has led to a commitment to having children outside in winter, even in challenging conditions. Teachers have created classroom sets of Oakiwear rain suits, hats, boots, mittens, and warm layers to make this possible. The Floyd Elementary principal described that, “Last year there were some days that were really cold. Bay City schools were closed – but our K kids went outside that day. The real temperature was 15 degrees but there was no wind chill advisory, so the children were outside. And sometimes even when it’s below 15 degrees, the children are outside.”

The commitment to being outside for daily physical activity, not just in Kindergarten and first grade, but for all K-5 children, was expressed by one principal who said, “Just to have them go outside, that makes all the difference in the world. Wouldn’t it be great for the school to have raingear for all the kids to be outside in rainy weather?”

Executive Function

Much research over the past few decades points to the development of executive functioning in young children as a more important and productive goal than the development of early literacy and numeracy skills. Executive function, it turns out, may be a better predictor of long-term academic and social success than early reading and writing. Therefore, focusing on the development of these executive function skills – working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and self-regulation – may be more appropriate early childhood program goals than learning letters and numbers.

Since these are squirmy concepts to wrap one’s head around, let’s define these subcomponents and translate them into illustrative childhood games.

Working memory is the ability to briefly hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. (Children’s Game: Concentration)

Inhibitory control and self-regulation is the ability to stop thoughts and actions at the appropriate time, set priorities, and generally have a considered response rather than give in to impulses. (Children’s Game: Simon Says)

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to respond appropriately to changing situations and apply different rules in different settings. (Children’s Game: Red Light, Green Light)

(D’Amore et al., 2015)

At the Chippewa Nature Preschool, the teachers described a variety of ways in which children were developing these skills. One teacher said:

The first thing that comes to mind is risk assessment. Our kids are assessing their own risk daily. Do you feel comfortable doing that?...Today we were out climbing on fallen logs. We had a child that climbed up to the top but wasn’t sure how to get back down. I watched her, she put a foot down (but found it not safe) and then found a different ledge. That child at the beginning of this year would have reached out for help. She has learned how to control her body and have self-confidence.

We then pushed a bit further and asked, “Can you give us explicit examples of activities that you conduct that actively help children develop the sub-components of working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility?” We were surprised at the array of very specific activities that clearly target these skills. Here’s a sample below.

Code Word. (Working memory and inhibitory control) Every day the teachers develop a code word to release the children from the circle to go to the gate. This occurs after group meeting as a transition to go on the hike. They choose a science word, like “insect,” and then they say a variety of words that sound like the word, but aren’t the word. The children can only leave when they hear “Ready, set, insect.” First the teacher says, “Ready, set, go,” and the children have to restrain the impulse to get up. Then, “Ready, set, ant” which also doesn’t count because ants are insects, but the code word is the actual word. Then the teachers will use a word that sounds a lot like the code word. “Ready, set, inside,” or, more subtly, “Ready, set, inspect.” The children have to attend to the subtle distinction between the sound of “inspect” and “insect.” Kids start suggesting words – sometimes it’s unrelated like “pizza,” but other times it rhymes, which suggests that they’re developing language differentiation skills.

Freeze Song. (Cognitive flexibility) The teachers play a game called “Freeze Song” while outside. First they play music from a portable music device. When the music plays the children dance, and when the music stops they freeze. It’s like the movement pattern in Musical Chairs. Then the teachers switch the pattern. (In executive function terms this is known as rule switching.) When music is playing, children have to freeze. When the music is silent, they dance.

Trail Walks. (Inhibitory control) The teachers described a great deal of inhibition control that occurs on the trail. When children see a squirrel, their first impulse is to run after it. Rather, the teachers explain that if the children want to get close to see the squirrel, then they have to get really quiet and walk very, very slowly toward the squirrel. Similarly, the teachers often have children play Red Light, Green Light on the trail.

Since it is evident that a variety of CNC program components help children develop executive function skills, we plan to quantify children’s executive function growth in the next phase of our research through the Head, Toes, Knees, Shoulders metric. In this game children are first taught that if the leader says touch your head, you touch your head. And if the leader says touch your toes, then you touch your toes. Then they play a silly version of the game. When the leaders says touch your head, you touch your toes and vice versa. Then the Knees/Shoulders pair is also taught and switched. This metric has been normed and used at other early childhood settings in Michigan. Therefore, we’re interested in seeing how children at CNC compare to children in other early childhood programs in the state.

At the Bullock Creek Schools, though this tends to be a new topic of discourse in elementary school circles, the teachers and administrators did indicate ways in which they saw nature-based programming influencing executive function in students.

Parallel to the observations of the CNC teachers, Nature K teachers identified ways in which nature programming led to self-control:

There are times when we try to get out and use senses and view different animals. Looking for birds we have to be very quiet. They want to shout, “I see that bird!” But they learn to control that. Or, they want to pick everything. They think “I want this beautiful flower,” but they also want to look at that flower tomorrow. That is the difference and that is stronger (impulse control) and that could carry over to other situations. If they have learned: I am not going to pick this flower and I can watch it grow, they will do it in other situations. I hear them say they saw this bird at Grandma's house. That’s a sign of a carryover and more motivation. (Working memory)

This teacher also commented on the increasing stamina of her children:

We decided on extra outside time in the afternoon. As a result, their indoors attention spans grew. By early November, their stamina in the later afternoon improved. Around 2:15 or 2:30, their attention spans were longer than at the beginning of the year because of outdoors time.

In regard to one special needs child, another Nature 1st grade teacher said:

One student this year came as a homeschooled student with basically nothing. Limited socialization, attentional focus, impulse control. Home wasn’t doing her any justice. At the beginning of the year, I said to Mom I anticipated holding her back because she was so far behind. But nature has had an important impact on her. She has made huge gains, due in part to not only experiences in nature and knowledge, but also the socialization she finds in nature with other students. She didn’t have any of that. For her to come and be socialized in that way, in stump circles or on the trail, it’s had an impact on her learning.

Also parallel to the CNC teachers, the Nature K teachers identified children’s ability to measure risk and to become physically self-sufficient was shaped by their nature experience:

Kids will test climbing in trees, and then they’ll wonder–how am I going to get down? Some will help each other get down, others will wonder what to do, and we go and walk them down. I don’t always go and offer them an easy out. If they went up there, then it’s good to let them figure out how to get down. It’s not like on the playground, where all the distances are all the same. Here you have to stretch your legs a little further.

In the Nature Kindergarten and first grade, both teachers and students stretch a little further. The teachers move out of their comfort zone, out of the climate-controlled classroom, and out into the unpredictable world of the nearby natural world. One teacher said, “The stocking cap messes my hair up, but I love how my kids interact outdoors.” The students have to learn to walk farther, negotiate disagreements, learn which plants you can nibble and which you can’t, how to stretch their legs to reach that next branch. All in all, stretching is a good thing.

Future Implications

This case study is focused on one unique community, and thus hard to generalize to broader contexts. However, it does provide insights into logical next steps as NbECE scholars develop and implement a research agenda. This study identifies administrative characteristics other communities would be wise to consider when developing nature-based education partnerships but also identifies several areas where additional research is needed.

First, the issue of motivation and enthusiasm for school engagement needs to be explored further. Are other nature-based settings seeing similar positive shifts in attendance? What about the long-term connection to, engagement with, and motivation for school and learning? Does time in a nature-based setting support a love of learning that continues well beyond the earliest years? If so, that would give cause for all early childhood programs to move quickly toward a nature-based approach. Such a finding would also beg the question as to how much nature engagement is needed to support that love of learning.

There was some mention in this case of the nature-based approach supporting dual language learners; however one limitation of this study was the few numbers of these students. Future research is needed to explore more deeply the ways DLLs are supported through nature-based approaches. Another area unclear in this study was if the nature-based approach supports general vocabulary development, both receptive and expressive, beyond science-specific words, and is worth exploring more deeply. Yet another line of questioning is how this science vocabulary and academic motivation supports science learning. If science vocabulary is in fact richer in children who attend nature-based programs, how does language development relate to other science learning such as development of science and engineering practices? Research to begin answering these questions is the logical next steps in NbECE.


The partnership between Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool and the Bullock Creek School District can serve as a model for the naturalization of the K-3 curriculum and practices in other school districts throughout North America. The themes teachers and administrators identified related to child development are logical starting points in future research. As the NbECE movement continues to grow, it is vital we continue to document the organizational best practices supporting the naturalization of curriculum but also the impact that change has on young children’s development in the moment as well as long-term. This work is just beginning.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Antioch University New EnglandKeeneUSA
  2. 2.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sean Blenkinsop
    • 1
  • Peter Kahn
    • 2
  1. 1.Simon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada
  2. 2.University of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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