Experience being outdoors in nature—how much do we need?

A squirrel almost hidden in brown leaves.

Children delight in seeing hidden animals.

In preschool the lessons about environmental science can be about becoming familiar with and enjoying the environment through outdoor exploration and play, gardening, and fieldtrips, and noticing connections such as, roly-polies and slugs are usually found in cooler damp places and when the grass turns brown. Caring for the environment relates to what is within children’s control—leaving spaces cleaner than we found them by cleaning up after ourselves and not messing up others (Nature’s) work. I believe that if children develop a love for the natural world they will be good stewards as they grow older—to the extent that is appropriate for their age and if they have the information about how their actions can reduce negative environmental changes. For example, children may litter without thinking about where the trash should go. In early childhood we can teach children to tidy up after themselves in all areas, creating a habit. If in addition children have opportunities to observe wildlife–plants and animals, from ants to birds to deer—they may develop a love of nature, and can reason that they want to clean up to preserve it.

Children examining a grub.Can you feel connected to nature as an adult if you haven’t experienced this as a child? Can anyone tell me about adults who are now inclined to be outside but were nature/environmentally deprived as children? I’m wondering about how much nature is enough when I compare some of the programs I work in to programs I’ve read about which operate outdoors, all day, every day, except in extreme weather, such as Cedarsong Nature School in Vashon Island in Washington state.  Watch videos about learning these children are doing in the woods from KOMO4 News and the Seattle Times in Seattle, WA and read the news articles to get a bit more detail: Mike Esterl ‘s article in the April 14, 2008, Wall Street Journal describes a parent’s attitude toward a possible danger of forest schools–ticks, and Rosemary Bennett’s article in the October 6, 2009, Sunday Times about forest schools in Europe, including the Secret Garden Nursery in the Howe of Fife, in Scotland.

Jenny, Australian preschool teacher at “a progressive school nestled in the beautiful Australian bush” and blogger, shares other sites:

Mother Earth School in Portland, OR,  the Carp Ridge Forest Preschool near Carp, Ontario, the Tusseladden nursery program in Norway,  and the “I Ur och Skur” program in Sweden.

Some early childhood programs such as Shining Star Waldorf School in Portland, OR and Mountain View Parent Nursery School in Mountain View, CA, offer a one-day-a-week outdoor program in addition to an indoor-outdoor preschool program.

October 2010 cover of the journal Science and Children“As children ran their palms along the rough bark of horse chestnut trees or gently cradled a toad, they would have experiences unavailable to them at school, with potential to augment and enrich their classroom science curriculum.” Read more about a collaboration which supported children’s growing understanding of science inquiry and basic life science concepts in A Walk in the Woods in the October 2010 issue of Science and Children. Authors Cindy Hoisington, Nancy Sableski, and Imelda DeCosta fully describe the Head Start-Arboretum project, not an all outdoor preschool but a series of four fieldtrips, offering us a path to follow into the woods.

Full disclosure: As a child I spent many happy hours in the woods behind my house after school and in the summer and I am definitely biased towards spending time in nature!


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11 Responses to Experience being outdoors in nature—how much do we need?

  1. John says:

    As children, we were always out exploring the nearby woods. I loved it when we went on class nature field trips, even if it was right behind the school building.

  2. In reference to your question about adults who are now inclined to be outside but were nature-deprived as children, I can tell you that a number of parents who participate in the weekly nature fieldtrip class I teach at the Mountain View Parent Nursery School sign up specifically because they don’t feel comfortable outdoors and want to overcome their fears. Plus, they want their children to be familiar with the natural world. I give the parents a lot of credit for learning to observe California newts without gasping and notice poison oak along a trail but still enjoy the view. These same parents are in awe of their 4-and 5-year-old children who find raccoon tracks in the mud and who learn to carry a small backpack with their snack and water bottle on a hike for several miles without complaining. The outdoors is a fantastic learning environment on many levels, as you know.

  3. I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered your wonderful blog – and then found a link to mine 🙂 Thanks so much for the shout out, now off to read more of your blog!

  4. PeggyA says:

    It’s good to hear of families recognizing their children’s need for learning about nature through direct experience. In my urban area there are several reverted-to-natural areas with wide walking paths that allow children to get into the woods without actually tramping though it–an easy first step for anxious or inexperienced families. It pays to be cautious. When my youngest was two I allowed her to splash in a shallow pool of a local creek and even though I sanitized her hands afterward, she got a diarrhea illness for a week, probably from a microbe in the water.
    Marie and others–what is the greatest amount of contact with nature that you, your students, and their parents are comfortable with? Do you increase the “contact time” as the session progresses?
    Jenny–Tell us more about your program. What is the highest level of “contact” your families are comfortable with?
    I’d love to hear teachers’ tips on sensible safety on nature walks.

  5. I think about risks outdoors a lot, Peggy. As you point out with your creek experience, it’s important to be careful. My feeling is that the benefits of being outdoors outweigh the risks. My class does wade in a creek. Afterwards we wash hands with fresh water then use hand sanitizer. Maybe we’ve just been lucky but no one has gotten sick that I’m aware of.
    I point out poison oak in its various forms and attempt to keep kids and parents clear of it. There is a product you can use after exposure, Tecnu, that washes off the oils that cause the rash. This is our fifth year of Adventure Day. So far, I’m the only person who has gotten poison oak after our trips. I saw a child headed for a vine, intervened and must have brushed against some I didn’t see. My procedure now is to wash my hands and arms with Tecnu after every trip where there is poison oak regardless of whether I think I touched any.
    We increase the distance children and adults walk as the year progresses. We are outdoors in all kinds of weather (but not thunder and lightning storms.) I love the quote that there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothes.
    As far as risks go, walking with children in a parking lot seems a lot more dangerous to me than walking on a trail. Yet walking near cars is something that’s familiar so parents don’t fear it as much.

  6. Janice Medenica says:

    As a child, I have the most vivid memories of nature. I was constantly paddling around in the pond across the street catching frogs, salamanders and just having a good time getting dirty. I remember my science teachers always taking us for nature walks in a nature trail behind the school and my fourth grade teacher who took us to explore tide pools at a popular beach in our town. Why is it that this is what I remember most about my Elementary experiences? I believe it is because I was engaged in doing something I truly cared about, caught my interest, and allowed me to investigate my surroundings.
    Young children are more in tuned to their environment and their surroundings than we think they are. They are natural inquirers who are always trying to find out more about their world. This week I have been working on the elementary divisional standards and curriculum trying to keep it more inquiry based and real science. I find that most units that teachers are teaching are 85% surrounding Living Things and their Environment. Why is this I wonder? Is it because this is easier to find things to teach about or is it easier for us to connect to because of our own childhood experiences?

  7. PeggyA says:

    You were lucky to have so much time in nature Janice. Interesting what you say about teachers focusing on Living Things and their Environment. In the programs I work with teachers do not have anything more lively in the classroom than a few fish and most plants do not survive the haphazard watering schedule. I know that I am drawn to learning more about living things—I agree that it is probably because I had childhood experiences like yours.
    I’m curious about the elementary divisional standards and curriculum you are writing. What sources do you find useful for the inquiry (“real science”)?

  8. This is a wonderful site. It is great to read all the news about the wonders of the great outdoors. Some 25 years ago my wife and I moved to British Columbia and fell in love with everything here. Especially Whistler where some the 2010 Olympic games were held. We began our website whistler-outdoors three years ago and now have over 300 great pages of not only the sports you can participate in but camping, hiking kayaking and everything a person who loves nature might enjoy.
    Thanks to you all for the exciting stories.
    Joe and Irma MacMillan

  9. PeggyA says:

    Thanks for writing Irma and Joe. I encourage you to add information for families and teachers of children ages 2-8 on your pages about enjoying the natural beauty of Whistler, British Columbia.

  10. Pingback: Nature education links | Exploring Portland's Natural Areas

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