Nature Preschools' Impact on Young Children's Learning: The Research
During a recent interview for a local magazine article on outdoor schools, I was asked how I would reassure parents who might be worried that a nature preschool would not prepare a child for the academic challenges of kindergarten. I answered that current research shows us the overwhelming importance of having a learning mindset. Social-emotional and executive functioning habits central to learning, such as perseverance, problem-solving, and resiliency, are ones that children in nature preschools practice on a daily basis as they explore their world and cope with the obstacles that mother nature produces.
I, and other nature-focused early childhood practitioners, intuitively see that a natural environment assists children in developing a learning mindset. However, feeling something is not the same as empirical proof. So, it was with great interest that I attended an online presentation by Julie Ernst, professor of education at the University of Florida, on the empirical research she and her team have done concerning nature preschools’ impact on young children’s development of creative thinking, curiosity, executive function, learning behaviors, peer play interactions, and resilience.
Curiosity is necessary for engaged learning because it reflects children’s interest in the world around them and their desire to explore novel stimuli. Ernst and her colleagues used a “curiosity box,” which is basically a box filled with toys and items the children had not seen before, to measure curiosity in children both in nature preschools and in traditional preschools. They counted how many toys the children took out of the box, how many toys they engaged with, and whether or not they sought out further information about the toys through experimentation or other information-seeking activities.
There was no difference between nature and traditional preschools in the number of toys children removed or engaged with. However, the children in nature preschools showed significantly more experimentation and information-seeking behaviors. Children are innately curious, but nature preschools seem to help children take their natural curiosity a step further and transform it into the initiative to learn more.
Resiliency is a set of skills that allows someone to cope in the face of adversity. It becomes a tool for learning because children learn how to set, meet, and overcome obstacles and goals, whether they are social, personal, or academic. Ernst and her colleagues asked parents and caregivers to complete the Devereaux Early Childhood Assessment for preschoolers to measure resiliency. The DECA is an observational tool that asks observers to note how many times a child engages in certain tasks, like attempting to complete a task by themselves, choosing challenging tasks, handling frustrations, adapting their play when necessary, etc. Taken together, the observations show how often a child reacts in a positive way to the challenges their environment presents to them. Children were observed at the beginning of the school year, in September, and then again at the end of the year, in April.
While children in both nature preschools and traditional settings increased their initiative in school from fall to spring, only children in the nature preschools improved their self-regulation. There was also a transfer from school to home in the skills of the children attending nature preschools, while children in traditional preschools did not seem to transfer their newfound skills to the home environment.
Executive functioning is critical for both social and academic learning. Executive functions are a set of skills including critical thinking, problem-solving, goal setting and planning, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. In this study, executive function was measured by the Minnesota Executive Skill Function Instrument. It is basically a picture sorting task. Children are shown two boxes (on an iPad). Then they are shown additional pictures and need to determine where the pictures belong. Increasing challenge levels require children to think more about the attributes that determine where each picture belongs. Children were given the test in September and again in April to measure growth.
Interestingly, there was no difference in growth between children in nature and traditional preschools. However, both sets of children had growth levels larger than what could be attributed solely to maturation. This result suggests that one, high-quality preschools, in general, do a good job preparing children for the executive functioning demands of kindergarten and elementary school, and, two, children in nature preschools are just as well prepared as those attending traditional preschools.
All of Dr. Ernst’s research is preliminary, with a relatively small sample size (less than 200 children from up to 4 different preschool programs), and limited geographic and socio-economic variation. More research is necessary before affirming the empirical academic benefits of nature preschools. However, her preliminary results should encourage parents and educators that the unique benefits of outdoor schools come hand in hand with the same school readiness benefits (and perhaps even more) of traditional preschool programs.