Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning.
On a cold, drizzly morning in early May, I visited an outdoor preschool program in Baltimore, Maryland, to learn about the state’s recent efforts to expand such schools. For several hours, I traipsed around the woods with the children there, watching as they methodically built miniature mudslides and waterfalls, splashed bravely into streams and inspected mushrooms growing on mossy logs. (The full story on outdoor preschool access was published in partnership with The Washington Post.)
While it may seem like children are simply enjoying carefree play time, serious learning is happening when they are outside, educators and experts say. Spending time outdoors in a safe green space can support healthy development, according to a new report by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, which looks at how physical environments affect child development and health. Conversely, the lack of such opportunity can be detrimental to children, the report states.
Other research shows spending time in nature can improve academic performance, reduce symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, improve mental health and promote physical activity and the development of motor skills.
Despite the benefits, nature and outdoor learning remain largely out of reach for most children. Across the country, a third of families with young children spend time in nature just once or twice a month, at most. Nationwide, access to green spaces varies, and low-income households and neighborhoods where most residents are Black, Hispanic or Asian American are less likely to have parks with amenities like playgrounds and bathrooms. Air pollution and water pollution is more concentrated near communities where Black and Latino families live. Even as outdoor preschool programs have expanded over the past five years — from 250 in 2017 to more than 800 in 2022, according to the nonprofit Natural Start Alliance — the programs still mostly serve white children and most run as private, part-time schools.
In the wake of the pandemic, child development experts and outdoor learning advocates have called for more outdoor play time for young children to help mitigate some of the effects of the pandemic, as well as to address a decline in play and recess in schools.
“Many of us have been concerned … we’re seeing less recess, were seeing less gym, were seeing less art and things like that where kids are kind of naturally moving, touching, seeing, smelling,” said Cathrine Aasen Floyd, director of ideal learning initiatives at the nonprofit Trust for Learning, which recently released a report on the benefits of learning through nature. “We have become a nation that is so worried about the ABCs and 1-2-3s that we lost sight of the fact that children who enjoy a learning environment are going to have better cognitive outcomes,” she added. With nature-based learning, “there is an opportunity to make to bring back the joy.”
Maryland, the home of the preschool I visited, joins a small but growing number of states that are trying to capitalize on that opportunity and license outdoor preschool programs, which could expand access to more children. In the meantime, experts and advocates of outdoor learning say there are ways to bring more nature to young children in a variety of early learning settings, including in states that do not yet support formal outdoor programs:
- Make any available outdoor space child-friendly: While few child care programs receive funding specifically to improve outdoor settings, there are low-cost ways to invest in outdoor play spaces, according to a recent report by New America. That could mean adding some “permanent centers in response to the children’s interests” outside, like a play kitchen to use with dirt, water and mud, a music wall made from kitchen items or a sand and water area. Such efforts could encourage more exploration, movement and creative thinking during the time children are spending outdoors.
- Make the outdoors a regular part of the classroom: Current child care licensing systems are “built upon a framework where learning happens indoors and outdoors is a break area,” said Christy Merrick, director of the Natural Start Alliance, which supports nature and outdoor learning programs. “The system never really considers what happens if we learn outside.” Taking indoor materials like books and art supplies outside could be an easy way for programs to incorporate nature into their days, according to officials from New America. Schools could also look for opportunities to teach lessons outdoors or incorporate nature-based topics, like growing plants or the life cycle of butterflies, into the curriculum. Aasen Floyd, of Trust for Learning, said allowing children to move freely between the indoor and outdoor space — as long as staffing allows for such movement — could be another way to give children more time in nature.
- Bring natural materials into the classroom: Some programs built in “concrete jungles” may not have access to lush, outdoor areas, said Aasen Floyd. Instead, such programs can bring nature into the classroom, including boxes of gardening materials so children can plant or dig, and “loose parts” like acorns and pine branches. This allows children to explore natural materials and compare the textures, appearances and smells of materials that they would typically encounter outdoors. “What we’ve been focused on is this idea of small but significant changes,” said Aasen Floyd. “Not everybody’s going to have an opportunity to completely tear out their playground and turn it into this natural wonderland, but there are things we can do to teach children about nature.”