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By Jackie Mader

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: 

1. 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. 

2. 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. 

3. 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.” 

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More on outdoor learning in early ed:

My recent story for The Washington Post looks at a growing movement to license outdoor preschools and expand access to children typically excluded from such programs.  

This 2021 story by Tina Deines for The Hechinger Report looks at how outdoor preschools tend to serve mostly middle-class white kids. 

In 2015, my former colleague Lillian Mongeau looked at the expansion of outdoor preschools with a deep dive into efforts in Washington state to license and expand such schools. 

This recent story by the DeForest Times-Tribune looks at efforts to create an outdoor version of the federally-funded Head Start program in Wisconsin. 

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Research Quick Take:

Access to early intervention and early childhood special education, services that improve learning and development for young children, varies greatly by state and ethnicity, according to a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Overall, the number of young children receiving early intervention or early childhood special education services nationwide dropped during the pandemic. While 10 percent of children under 3 receive early intervention in Massachusetts, only 1 percent of children under 3 receive such services in Arkansas or Hawaii. Black, Hispanic and Asian children are also less likely to receive services than their white peers.  

(For more, check out this recent story on how Black and Latino infants and toddlers often miss out on these services, by Sarah Carr.) 

More early ed stories:

Calling all 4-year-olds: LAUSD’s pre-K classes are ready,” LAist 

Pandemic led to drop in special education services for young kids in Missouri and nationwide,” St. Louis Public Radio 

How to fix crumbling child care infrastructure,” Bloomberg 

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