Unstructured Play. One of the benefits of nature immersion for young children is that they regain a childhood right to play outside in an unstructured environment with little input from adults. "Fear is often the biggest barrier to giving children some wiggle room away from constant adult supervision" (Hanscom, 2016, p. 114). It is a rarity to see children playing outside without parent supervision and when parents do allow this, they run the risk of being called free-range parents with police or social services intervention (Hanscom, 2016). Giving children back this childhood freedom to play without being rushed from one activity to another is important. "The Forest Kindergarten educational model allows these children the time to immerse in nature with no sense of rush and with no adults telling them what to do next. The time slows as children find their own rhythm without adult intervention and this sense of timelessness is something that is not often experienced in today's frenetic world" (Kenny, 2013, p. 8). Audubon Nature Preschool in Chevy Chase, MD agrees with Erin Kenny (2013). They state that one of the benefits of nature immersion for young children is "giving children large uninterrupted blocks of time to follow their interests and make discoveries on their own." Likewise, a family childcare provider in Rock Island, IL also states "TIME" as one of the most beneficial components of a nature immersion program.
My perspective is similar. My childhood was filled with large amounts of unstructured outdoor play time either alone or with my brother. As a parent and an early childcare provider, I want to help children reclaim this childhood right. Fear is one thing that does stand in the way especially with my own children and allowing them to play freely outside. It isn't injury, abductions or my children getting lost as Hanscom (2016) describes that I fear most. It is the perception of others that I fear and because of that, I believe that my children are at risk when playing outside unsupervised especially if the wrong person sees it and believes it to be neglectful. The term "free-range" parenting has become one you hear about more and more in the media. Hanscom (2016) discusses several situations where parents were investigated for letting their children walk to the park alone or allowing children to play outside without a parent. Given that fear, I do believe it is my responsibility both as a parent and early childcare provider to advocate for childhood rights and my perspective is I cannot let fear get in the way of providing children the benefit of unstructured play in nature. It is just too valuable and critical to the development of children.
Cognitive Benefits. As discussed in the Parent Perspective section of this action research project, even parents who embrace nature immersion and play the most, still express concern regarding learning and preparation for success in the public school system. David Sobel (2016) discusses the cognitive benefits of nature immersion. "Consider some of the cognitive processes routinely at work in a natural play space: observation, concentration, exploration, collecting, sorting, experimenting, and building. These are not perceived by the kids as "learning," of course; to the children they are just play! Yet they powerfully stimulate the mind and lay the core foundations for academic learning" (Sobel, 2016, p. 143). While some cognitive skills may be genetic, most are learned through real-life situations. Therefore, it is important to provide an enriching environment in which cognitive experiences can be provided to young children. It is out of these cognitive experiences that abilities such as paying attention, memory and thinking will be developed. These are crucial skills that are utilized to process "sensory information to form new memories, to evaluate, to analyze, to make comparisons, and to learn cause and effect" (Hanscom, 2016). Kenny (2013) discusses studies conducted in Germany that demonstrate that children from waldkindergartens actually perform better when they start formal schooling because they developed problem-solving and critical thinking skills that are crucial in later academic years (Kenny, 2013). Likewise, a study out of the University of North Florida also demonstrated similar results from children who had more active, child-initiated early learning experiences (Marcon, 2002). This study showed that these students had gained the necessary skills important during later elementary years such as curiosity, comprehension, independent thinking, responsibility for their learning, and greater initiative (Marcon, 2002).
Nature programs and forest kindergartens, as well as, my own program believe in learning through hands-on, sensory-rich experiences that only nature can provide. It is these playful explorations and discoveries, which are child-directed that help build the foundation for later academic success. It lays the groundwork for a child loving to learn, which is vital not only in later academic years but in life.
Physical Benefits. Like most other types of development, physical development is crucial during the first five years of life and children either learn or don't learn to be physically active during these years. As discussed earlier, childhood obesity is epidemic in the United States in large part due to the dramatic decrease in children's physical play (Nelson, 2012). Copeland, Sherman, Kendeigh, Kalkwarf & Saelens (2012) state that this childhood obesity epidemic has remained steady over the past 10 years despite public health efforts to target prevention and interventions during the younger years. 75% of children ages 3-5 are in childcare centers and 70-83% of their time in childcare is sedentary (Copeland et al., 2012). Only 2-3% of their time is spent during vigorous activities despite 19% of these children already being obese. In these children, sedentary habits have already been established. Early childcare centers may be the only place that children find an opportunity for physical activity and/or outdoor play for many reasons. One reason is that there is little free time outside of childcare for physical activity due to parents working long hours or multiple jobs. “In 59 percent of families with young children, both parents work” (Rivkin & Schein, 2014, p. 13). Parents may also lack adequate income for outside extracurricular activities or some children may lack a safe place near their home for outside play. Finally, child care providers report that parents may not value the importance of physical activity and trips to a safe park to provide outdoor play or physical activity to their children are not a priority (Copeland et al., 2012).
For these reasons, it is imperative to examine the physical benefits of nature immersion for children regardless of where it takes place. First and foremost, Erin Kenny (2013) from Cedarsong Nature School explains that "spending time in nature makes children more physically fit and strengthens their immune system" (Kenny, 2013, p. 18). While many people still believe in the myth of getting sick from being outdoors in cold or damp weather, Kenny explains that her experience proves this wrong. She states "children who spend a lot of time outdoors are actually less prone to being sick for several reasons: less opportunity to spread germs from handling of same toys and tools, more space between children so sneezing and coughing are not in close quarters; and simply being outdoors actually strengths the immune system" (Kenny, 2013 p. 16). Kenny also states that during nature immersion children are constantly practicing gross and fine motor skills. Nelson (2012) argues that "just getting children outdoors increases the likelihood that they will become more physically active" (Nelson, 2012, p. 27). Given the space to move, children will do it. Rivkin and Schein (2014) show the correlation between nature and physical health. They state that more immersion in nature results in enhanced recovery from surgery; it enables and supports more physical activity, which reduces physician-diagnosed diseases including cardiovascular diseases; nature helps diabetics achieve healthier blood glucose levels and immersion improves functional health status and independent living skills among older adults. Like other studies, Rivkin et al. (2014) state that there is a relationship between less time in nature and greater rates of childhood obesity, which ultimately increase mortality rates in young and older adults. In the program surveys received by 21 nature preschools and forest kindergartens, 9 programs stated specifically that physical benefits were one of the most beneficial components of a nature immersion program for early learners.
Social and Emotional Development. "Waiting your turn. Following the rules. Dealing with feelings of frustration and anger in a healthy way. Sharing toys. Making new friends. All of these skills describe components of healthy social-emotional development" (Hanscom, 2016, p. 56). Through program surveys, 15 programs specifically mentioned social development as being most important. Examples of social development that were mentioned on surveys included team work, conversations skills, conflict resolution, turn taking, being part of a community, and compromise. Emotional development was very important to nature preschools and forest kindergartens as well with 12 programs citing its importance. Providers mentioned resilience, confidence, independence, a sense of pride, and regulations of emotions as examples of emotional development. Young children develop these skills over time and with practice just like any other skill or area of development. Unstructured outdoor play challenges and enhances social skills because the natural setting creates "a calm, sensory-rich-but not sensory overloaded-environment where kids can play energetically without some of the frustrations, noise, and other stressors that present themselves at indoor play facilities" (Hanscom, 2016, p. 58). In nature, children are given the opportunity to work through problems one on one or in small groups without adult interference, which provides endless opportunities for social interactions and problem solving. Like the program surveys, Hanscom (2016) reports that it is this independent play outdoors that develops strong, confident, resilient, compassionate, and friendly individuals
Kenny (2013) also believes that forest kindergartens promote healthy social-emotional development "by reducing potential conflict over toys and space" (Kenny, 2013, p. 14). She states "since the toys in our forest are all nature-made, there are plenty for everyone" (Kenny, 2013, p. 14). As seen in my Child Perspective section, when children engage in unstructured imaginative play, "they are learning the fine art of socialization: negotiation, compromise, cooperation and teamwork" (Kenny, 2013, p. 14). As a family childcare provider, I was amazed to see firsthand the difference in social-emotional behavior during the six-week nature immersion study. During the one day when we stayed inside due to inclement weather, the children fought over toys, had lots of conflict among one another and seemed to be bouncing off the walls. Like Erin Kenny (2013) states, "children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the wall" (Kenny, 2013, p. 3). That statement could not have proven truer on that one day especially when the children had become accustomed to the space and calmness that nature has to offer. I also noticed similar effects of nature like Nedovic et al., (2013) described which included a sense of calmness. Children "were less likely to become agitated or distressed" (Nedovic et al., 2013, p. 290).. While nature offers more opportunities for gross motor skills, I noticed the children actually slowing down in the peacefulness of nature to notice the small details of a flower or to watch a worm wiggle into the dirt.
Empathy. David Sobel (2016) states the following about empathy. "Empathy between the child and the natural world should be a main objective for children ages four through seven. As children begin their forays out into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures living there. Early childhood is characterized by a lack of differentiation between the self and the other...We want to cultivate that sense of connectedness so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else" (Sobel, 2016, p. 12). Nature preschools and forest kindergartens reported a similar sentiment regarding the importance of empathy. Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool reports one of the most beneficial comments of nature immersion for early learners to be the following: "it helps them develop a sense of connection to the land, to all living creatures, and to each other." A nature preschool in MN states a benefit of nature immersion is the "connection to the world, something bigger than themselves." CNC Nature Preschool at Chippewa Nature Center describes the benefits of nature in developing empathy as "stewardship, connection to something larger than the self, connection to place." It is this place-based model of education that helps develop empathy. Developing an intimate connection to a place that children return to each day and learn to appreciate and respect as the seasons change helps children to gain larger perspective and a sense of stewardess. It is the ultimate love, respect, sense of connection and being part of something bigger that develops a desire to protect it. As Pathways to Nature Preschool reports, "we are developing stewards of tomorrow by allowing them [children] to develop a love of the outdoors." To me, empathy goes well beyond a desire to connect with and protect the Earth. Empathy creates productive, caring citizens in a community, it creates tolerant and respectful teachers in the classroom and parents who love and have the patience and the ability to care for their family.
David Sobel (2016) states "the great sadness of early childhood education in twenty-first-century American is the collapsing of the curriculum from wholeness to narrowness, from hands, heart and head to just the head" (Sobel, 2016, p. 75). While the most influential child development theorists and educators from the past and present, such as Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Rudolph Steiner, Maria Montessori to John Dewey, all believe that we need to address the whole child, somehow education continues to focus on narrow-minded ideologues. Many kindergarten teachers and even preschool teachers have succumbed to the pressure of replacing songs, stories and play-based learning with test preparation (Sobel, 2016). Nature preschools and forest kindergartens are advocating and committing themselves to "resurrecting wholeness in early childhood education" (Sobel, 2016, p. 75).
21 nature preschools and forest kindergartens responded to a question regarding the curricula utilized by their programs. The majority of these programs used a combination of curricula types. 17 programs stated that nature-based curriculum was used. Ferncliff Nature School in Little Rock, AR utilizes a nature-based Forest Kindergarten Guide as well as Growing Up Wild. Play-based curriculum was also used by 15 nature immersion programs. While The Creative Curriculum is play-based, it was considered in a category by itself. Place-based curriculum works on the premise that children are learning in the same place, whether it be a forest, meadow or community, every day rather than moving the program from place to place each day or week. By allowing the children to play in the same place every day, they not only develop an intimate connection with that environment, but they also develop a sense of community and learn from the daily and seasonal changes that take place when the direct interaction. 7 programs reported that they were place-based while others utilized different locations in their nature immersion programs. Little Tree Huggers, Audubon Nature Preschool, The Kinder Garden Preschool, Magnolia Nature Preschool, Painted Oak Nursery School & Kindergarten, and Pathways to Nature Preschool all have created their own curriculum. Below (left to right) are excerpts from The Kinder Garden Preschool, Inc in Raleigh, NC and Pathways to Nature Preschool in Boston, MA regarding their homegrown curriculum.
Similar to what Pathways to Nature Preschool stated above (right), my family childcare utilizes a hybrid of all curricula listed in my program survey. First and foremost, I believe an early childhood program should be child-directed and play-based. Because I am a STAR 4 family childcare program, I need to have a curriculum that will crosswalk with Pennsylvania Early Learning Standards. The Creative Curriculum provides that for me and in utilizing Teaching Strategies Gold Online as an assessment tool, these two complement each other well. However, I do not use The Creative Curriculum for every activity in my program or on a daily or even weekly basis. Mostly, I use their play-based philosophy to guide me at times. Because I feel that nature provides a sensory, rich learning environment with many proven benefits, I include nature-based curricula such as Growing Up Wild and Project Learning Tree as well as garden-based curricula. All of these are used in combination to guide any teacher-directed activities or materials in the learning environment. In the end, I believe that teacher-created and directed activities and materials should be minimal. However, at times, it is necessary and creates a healthy balance in a young child's play and learning environment. David Sobel (2016) states that "the curriculum in healthy nature preschools and forest kindergartens should neither be all free-form or all teacher directed. Though with younger children it may be fine to err in the direction of open-ended play, there will always be some measure of scheduled orderliness, group activities, dining protocol, and teacher-organized curriculum" (Sobel, 2016, p. 85). Sobel (2016) refers to "the healthy balance between child-initiated play in the presence of engaged teachers and more focused experiential learning guided by teachers" that was found in research regarding kindergarten curriculum (Sobel, 2016, p. 86).
Research from Germany compared 50 play-based classes with 50 early learning centers and "found that by age 10 the children who had played excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression" (Sobel, 2016, p. 84). As a result of this extensive research project, Germany kindergartens began to focus on play-based curriculum. This is consistent with the study conducted at the University of North Florida where Marcon (2002) compared various preschool models and found that those who had child-directed early learning experiences performed better in later elementary years than their peers who attended academic-based preschools. Marcon (2002) attributed this to early childhood child-directed experiences, which fostered curiosity, initiative, independence and effective choice and were necessary skills in later academic years (Marcon, 2002).
While one nature preschool stated that kindergarten readiness was not a program goal, the remainder provided detail regarding their perspective on what was most important in preparing children for Kindergarten. 15 programs specifically mentioned social development as being most important. Examples of social development that were mentioned on surveys included team work, conversations skills, conflict resolution, turn taking, being part of a community, and compromise. Emotional development was very important to nature preschools and forest kindergartens as well with 12 programs citing its importance. Providers mentioned resilience, confidence, independence, a sense of pride, and regulations of emotions as examples of emotional development. While physical development, including both fine and gross motor skills, was mentioned, no other specific skills were included in program surveys. Cognitive development was equally important to physical development with 5 programs stating it. Creativity, imagination, problem-solving, inquiry, discovery, questioning, discussion, observation, investigation, attention skills and curiosity and wonder were all examples of cognitive development. Finally, empathy and enthusiasm for learning both had 3 programs alike who felt these were important attributes to develop in preparation for kindergarten. Respect, patience, tolerance and ability to care for others were all grouped under empathy.
Below are two programs that mention academics in their response. However, they do not state that academics is necessarily an important part in preparing young learners for kindergarten but rather that the other areas of development need to occur first to prepare a student for academic success. This concept is consistent with research we have previously discussed about academic success later in elementary school years based on the preschool model children were exposed to (Marcon, 2002). Most nature preschools and forest kindergartens believe that the skills and development mentioned above lay the foundation for learning and academic achievement later on.
Like the nature preschools and forest kindergarten programs surveyed, my perspective is that young children learn best through outdoor play that is child-directed based on their interests. Nature provides enriching experiences that promote hands-on investigation, observation, discussion that stems from a child's natural curiosity and wonder. As demonstrated in the Child Perspective section of this action research project, outdoor play in nature also fosters creative and imaginative play based on loose parts that is truly unique. Social and emotional development in conjunction with these other skills will adequately prepare a child for kindergarten and will give the child the skill set necessary for academic success. Developing a love for learning is what I feel is most important during these younger years because it is that enthusiasm for learning that will encourage a child to challenge oneself and others throughout school and life itself. With that being said, kindergarten has become the first grade of 30 years ago and there are expectations placed on the children upon entrance to kindergarten. I do believe that academics can be creativity placed into a nature immersion program when appropriate for the child. My two youngest children attended my early childcare program for all five years prior to entry into public school kindergarten. They are 6 (first grade) and 5 (kindergarten) this school year. Both are at least a grade level ahead of their same-age peers. I feel that they are doing well academically because academics were not pushed on them but rather that learning was integrated into everything we did, whether it was outdoor play, driving in a car, or snuggling at bed time with a book. I allowed their own curiosities and interests to lead the way and learning naturally came with it.
Another piece of kindergarten readiness is transitioning both child and family to a new educational model or setting. Nature preschools and forest kindergartens were asked about this in the program survey. The Kinder Garden Preschool, Inc in Raleigh, NC stated that they start an academic circle mid-year for those students who will be transitioning to a traditional kindergarten setting. They also have followed up with parents of program graduates and "found that all transitioned well." New Canaan Nature Center Preschool collaborates with local public school kindergarten teachers to better understand their expectations. Many programs reported using parent-teacher conferences during a child's last year in the program to discuss transitioning, the expectations of kindergarten teachers and to provide information as needed for parents. Others held parent discussion groups and Kindergarten Information fairs.
Both CNC Nature Preschool at Chippewa Nature Center (above) and The Schuylkill Nature Center Preschool (below) reach out to children and families in may different ways to help them to transition to kindergarten or other formal schooling.
Because my own children are school-age, ages 11, 6, and 5 years old, I have recently went through transitions to formal schooling as a parent myself. This has better equipped me as an early childhood provider to understand the expectations of kindergarten and the elementary years in the local public schools of my area. With that being said, I attend every kindergarten registration and orientation of local schools to ensure that I understand the process so that I can clearly communicate this to the families in my program. In addition, I collaborate with kindergarten teachers, administrators and the kindergarten curriculum coordinator to better understand the expectations of kindergarten and the curriculum that will be used. I have been able to incorporate various parts of the local kindergarten curriculum into my family childcare setting so that children are familiar with it. An example of this is Handwriting Without Tears (HWT), which is a handwriting curriculum used in the local elementary school. HWT has a product with loose parts that I have adapted in a nature-based way. Using big lines and little lines as HWT calls them or big sticks and little sticks children in my program become familiar with this curriculum and develop early writing skills. Consideration of transitioning from a nature preschool setting to a more structured public school is important not only to the success of the child socially and academically but for the family as a whole.