WHAT IS NATURE-BASED EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION?
Simply put, it's education for young children (0-8 years old) where learning occurs in the context of nature. There are several program models that are considered nature-based early childhood education (NbECE) such as nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and nature-based kindergartens. In all of these programs nature is at the core of the curriculum, there is extensive daily outdoor time over the course of a school year, and teachers implement high-quality early childhood practices as well as high quality environmental education practices. In other words, nature and the outdoors permeate virtually every aspect of a NbECE program.
Keep in mind that integration of nature into early childhood education is on a continuum from no nature what so ever to the other end of the continuum where nature is infused in all parts of the program. A program that fully integrates nature blurs the lines between the indoor and outdoor space, outdoor time is extensive and often the first activity of the day, natural materials are found throughout the indoor space, and classroom activities are based on seasonal happenings. This full integration of nature is NbECE in its purest form. My mission is to move early childhood programs far away from the “no nature” end of the continuum and closer to a full nature-based approach.
Nature-based preschools, sometimes simply referred to as nature preschools, are licensed early childhood programs for 3-5 year olds where 25-50% of the class day is held outside, nature is infused into all aspects of the program, and the pedagogy emphasizes inquiry-based learning through play and hands-on discovery. This means the curriculum is driven by nature (i.e., the seasonal happenings), nature is integrated into the indoor spaces, and the play areas have an overall appearance of a natural area rather than structured play equipment. Nature-based preschools are rooted in high quality early childhood practices, which means implementing developmentally appropriate practices related to the physical environment as well as teacher-child interactions. In addition, nature-based preschools value stewardship of the natural world, which is demonstrated through teacher knowledge of the local flora and fauna, but also modeling and teaching the children appropriate ways to interact with the natural world. For example, the importance of wetting your hand before picking up a frog.
The nature-based preschool nearest and dearest to my heart is Nature Preschool at Chippewa Nature Center (CNC), which I helped found in 2007. You can learn more about that program, which now serves 124 3- and 4-year olds each year, by clicking here. When we first opened the program at CNC there were about a dozen nature-based preschools operating in the United States. That number has grown rapidly and is now closer to 40. (A list of current nature-based preschools is maintained by the Natural Start Alliance.) My goal is for that number to grow into the hundreds and eventually thousands! Click here for a list of my publications related to nature-based preschools or click here for a list of presentations I'll be giving on the topic.
NATURE-BASED KINDERGARTEN & BEYOND
Any student or parent that experiences a nature-based preschool inevitably wants to attend a nature-based kindergarten (and first grade, second grade…). Like nature-based preschools, the students have daily outdoor time as part of their curriculum. Nature is also brought into the classroom through physical materials, but also in the selection of reading materials, topics for small group activities, and so forth. In other words, nature is infused into all aspects of the classroom and serves as a tool to achieve learning outcomes.
Like Nature Preschool at CNC, I have a particular fondness for Nature Kindergarten and Nature First Grade in operation in Midland, MI at the Bullock Creek Public Schools. These programs are a partnership with Chippewa Nature Center that I helped start in 2012. While a naturalist supports the teacher with planning the scope and sequence for the year and selection of some materials, the curriculum is primarily developed by the classroom teachers. After all, the goal of the program is for integration of nature into all aspects of the curriculum, which means it needs to be teacher-driven. To learn more about Nature Kindergarten click here and for a news story about Nature First Grade click here.