Nature-based learning beneficial for young children

Nature is an ideal learning environment that can benefit young people in a multitude of ways, according to the report Nurturing All Children in Nature: Ideal Learning in the Natural World, released by the Trust for Learning in April.

Research has shown that nature-based learning has positive physical, cognitive and emotional impacts on children and aids in their development and encourages ecological stewardship. However, in the U.S., most children are spending far less time outdoors than prior generations.

“Childhood’s growing disconnection from nature has many causes, including safety concerns, limited access, the disappearance of open green space, social, political, and cultural factors, the influence of technology, and systemic environmental injustices against communities of color,” the report states.

In recent years, though, there has been a renewed interest in the benefits of outdoor learning opportunities and the concept of nature learning has expanded to include indoor experiences if healthy outdoor space isn’t available.

“Elements of nature are brought into the classroom through the use of natural materials (wood, fabrics, stone, sand, water, and clay), and seasonal displays that allow children to see and handle objects from nature and build a connection to the cycle of the year,” according to the report. “The inclusion of natural light, living plants, found objects from nature, and images from the natural world are supported by research that shows that nature elements in classrooms measurably reduce stress and anxiety, support self-regulation, and increase children’s ability to focus.”

Unequal access to nature-based learning currently exists for many children and is rooted in reasons including a history of exclusion, educational policies that have a narrow definition of school readiness and academic preparedness, inequitable urban planning practices, budget constraints and cultural factors.

“By addressing equitable access to nature as a social and racial justice issue, we have the opportunity to highlight and tackle issues such as under-resourced environments, trauma, toxic stress, and obesity, all of which have a disproportionate impact on children of color or low income,” the report states. “Ensuring access for those children who have physical disabilities is another critically important aspect of equity in nature engagement. Those working with differently abled children will have additional considerations and, potentially, obstacles in providing access to nature experiences, reducing restrictions on participation, and ensuring safety with as much autonomy as possible.”

Inexpensive ways to introduce nature to school grounds include adding plants and flowers to classrooms; asking families to bring in objects they find during their own adventures; presenting songs, poems or stories about seasons and local conditions “to bring images of nature to life in children’s imaginations;” incorporating stumps, water, sand and/or dirt areas for play outside; having potted plants, bird feeders and open room for activities like climbing, running and jumping.

“Programs with more resources can consider large-scale projects like redesigning playgrounds and turning blacktops into natural landscapes,” the report states.


In addition to laying out research and information on barriers, ideas and resources around the implementation of nature-based learning opportunities, the report highlights some programs that are already in place.

Alice Birney TK-8 School, part of Sacramento City Unified School District, is an example of how a school in a large, urban public school district can offer nature-based experiences.

“Schools must navigate various regulations and policies related to risk management, insurance, planning and approval processes, regulations and inspections, according to the report.

To achieve the many elements Alice Birney has now, like a large vegetable garden, chickens, a pollinator path and an array of trees, shrubs and plants to provide shade and improve air quality, school leaders had to get approval from district officials on plans, which included details on costs and ongoing maintenance requirements. Once approved, the school had to secure its own funding to bring its visions to fruition by fundraising, applying for grants and hosting community work days.

A Los Angeles-based partnership between the Foundation for Early Childhood Education and Head Start to transform blacktops into engaging outdoor spaces is also explored in the report.

“There are many achievable pathways to re-connect children with nature through early childhood care and education programs in any setting, starting with small, inexpensive, yet consequential steps. By taking these steps, and by supporting policy changes that will make them universal, we can enhance the cognitive, social and emotional development of all young children,” the report concludes.

A webinar hosted by Trust for Learning and The Hunt Institute, “Early Efforts: Promoting Nature-Based Learning in the Early Years,” further explored the report.