Nature education and learning

Get Kids Outdoors with Preschool Nature Education Tips for Teachers and Parents

In today’s gadget-obsessed world, nature education and outdoor preschool activities are more important than ever. At the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), we’re studying the benefits – and developing best practices – for outdoor learning activities that introduce children to the joys of nature. Nature-based preschool programs provide great benefits for children, helping their mental, academic and emotional development. Most importantly, they bring a sense of fun and adventure to kids that are too often overstressed and overscheduled.

My Journey with Nature

I cultivated my interest in nature and the outdoors when I left my home in Las Vegas, Nevada to study biology as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Morris, a town of 5,000 people in central Minnesota close to several parks and wildlife areas, provided me with a perfect setting to cultivate my love of the outdoors.

For my post-graduate work, I moved to the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota to study conservation. However, after my third  child was born, I took time off to focus more time on motherhood. During this time, I became more involved in my local Early Childhood Family Education program, spurring my interest in preschool education. My interests converged with an opportunity to work as administrator at the newly formed Dodge Nature Preschool in West St. Paul in 2000, a preschool that brings the natural world into the lives of young children on a 120 -acre nature preserve.

Now, my colleagues at CEHD and I work to develop better practices for education including  nature-based  learning – and study the positive impact that these programs can have for children.

The Benefits of Nature Education and Outdoor Preschool Activities

Research shows that there are many benefits to structured and unstructured outdoor activities for children. As director of CEHD’s Shirley G. Moore Lab School, we run summer preschool programs where children spend their entire days (except for bathroom and handwashing breaks) outside in nature. This program allows us a great opportunity to study how being outdoors aids in preschoolers’ development and a chance to develop new nature education programs and activities. While the benefits of spending time in nature are too numerous to list, here are a few of the main ways in which outdoor learning benefits preschool students:

Cultivating a sense of joy and adventure. As a society, we don’t prioritize joy and happiness. Our educational system places so much emphasis on readiness and preparing for what lies ahead, we forget that the goal is for our children to lead happy lives. For example, on June 29 our class at the Lab School celebrated “International Mud Day.” It was amazing to watch the children, their siblings and parents get as muddy as they wanted and experience the fun of playing in the mud. The goal of education is to prepare us for a life that is joyous, and activity connection with nature plays a big part in that.

Relieving stress. Our children’s lives are stressful – too often we hear parents and our students complain about being overscheduled with school and activities. Research shows that time spent outdoors and communing with nature can have a powerful stress-relieving effect, something that is vital for today’s students.

Providing opportunities for safe risk taking. Despite our efforts to safeguard our schools and playgrounds to provide safer environments for our kids, no amount of padding or wood chips can prevent children from getting injured. Interestingly, outdoor play in natural environments can be  safer for children; nature education programs can provide valuable opportunities for children to take “safe risks” while doing things like climbing trees and digging traps in the sand. The variety offered in nature actually makes children less likely to take dangerous risks, which usually happen when students become bored with unchanging playground equipment and attempt stunts to amuse themselves.

Get Outdoors with Your Kids: Tips for Teachers and Parents

Because I believe so strongly in the transformative power of nature education and outdoor learning for children, I’m in the process of writing a book with my colleague Julie Powers from from the University of Hawaii, Maui for Redleaf Press on engaging young children with nature in any setting.  I am also working as part of a wonderful writing team from Natural Start, the early childhood focused unit within the  North American Association of Environmental Education, on the best practices guidelines for nature preschools and forest kindergartens. Here are some general guidelines for teachers and parents on enabling your children to have meaningful outdoor experiences.

Three Tips for Teachers

  1. Build your activities around your local environment. Whether you’re in a rural or urban area, there are places you can take advantage of to get your students up close with nature. Build activities around your local environment and landscape. Here in Minnesota, we’re fortunate to have access to plentiful woods, lakes, agricultural areas, and all four seasons. In other regions of the country, your activities could center around the desert, mountains or beach.
  2. Be committed to being outside all year long. Too often – especially in states like Minnesota where the winters can be cold – we think of outdoor and nature education as being limited to summer and early fall. That doesn’t have to be the case. Today’s outdoor gear is the best it’s ever been, allowing for safe and healthy activity even in cold and rain (within reason, of course). In addition to gear, teachers in colder areas can lead students in projects like building snow forts or shelters made from tree branches.
  3. Give your teachers the proper training. Many of today’s new teachers come from a generation that did not spend as much time outdoors. As a result, many of them might not know what to do if they encounter a garter snake or dead rabbit in the woods. Giving them training on basic outdoors skills is just as important as developing a good nature and environmental learning curriculum.

Four Tips for Parents

  1. Let your children set the pace. Too often, we approach a trip to the zoo or a nature center as a job to be completed, with a full itinerary to be completed in the allotted time. Instead of rushing through the experience, let your kids set the pace and allow them time to explore and ask questions about the things that interest them. With this approach, they’ll get more out of the experience and you’ll be less stressed.
  2. Be prepared. It’s important to pack for a nature excursion, especially if you’re hiking in a wilderness area. Bring all the possible items you might need (a blanket to sit on, snacks, adequate water, etc.) as well as a journal and writing utensil so you and your child can take notes and make drawings about the things you see.
  3. Find support and education. Your local community and schools can be a great resource for your nature education and outdoor experiences. Look for outdoor programs conducted through organizations like your child’s school, ECFE and community education.
  4. Put away the electronics. The time you spend in nature should be a break from the electronics and devices that are so prevalent today – and not just for your kids. Be an example and put your own phone away. Don’t let it be a distraction, but a tool you pull out when useful to take photos or look up pertinent information on things you encounter in your outdoor adventures.
Sheila Williams Ridge

About the Author

Sheila Williams Ridge

  • Director, Shirley G. Moore Lab School
  • Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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