Below is an excerpt from my action research project conducted for my M.Ed. at West Chester University.
Many nature preschools and forest kindergartens are asked the question, "What are the children learning?" (Kenny, 2013, p. 73). Erin Kenny is the co-founder and director at Cedarsong Nature Preschool in Vashon, WA. At Cedarsong, they believe in interest-led, child-driven Flow Learning (Kenny, 2013). The premise behind nature immersion is that children develop an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world and in return, this connection provides numerous opportunities for learning. Kenny states that while "most American teachers are uncomfortable with the idea that the students direct the flow of the day," it is the interest of the child that helps create excitement for learning. When excitement for learning occurs, children are more likely to retain information. Therefore, at Cedarsong, it is "the children who decide what the lessons are on any given day" (Kenny, 2013, p. 74).
Based on the children's interests and experiences during the six-week nature immersion study, it was evident that the children learned through a hands-on approach that was driven by the children's curiosity. They were most interested in exploring (most often digging) to see what they could find. Quite often when they found something interesting to them like a worm, a woolly bear or another aspect of nature, it led to further inquiry. Through this constant exploration, inquiry and interest-led learning, children were developing math, language, social-emotional, and cognitive skills in addition to scientific inquiry.
My findings from this six-week nature immersion regarding children's perspectives and experiences during nature immersion were consistent with the study by Nedovic & Morrissey (2013) where children along with teachers developed a new organic garden learning environment. In this study, children preferred open-ended learning experiences that allowed children the ability to be spontaneous, innovative and flexible. Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment included open-ended learning experiences with greenery, flowers and natural materials. The most popular experience in this study was plants such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, leaves and trees. These experiences were even greater than their experiences with water and soil/mud, which were the next two most frequent experiences. A teepee that was placed in the garden area initiated deep dramatic play and a sense of security because it was in a fixed area. This encouraged children to continue play and develop their play over long periods of time (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013).
Likewise, in my family childcare setting, there was a sense of security and consistency that aligned with the place-based education model. The children were able to form deep relationships and connections with a setting, which extended play and learning over the changes of a season. As fall progressed, there were numerous opportunities for learning based on these changes. The study started out with warmer weather and a garden full of plants. After a heavy frost, the majority of the plants were no longer apart of the outdoor learning environment. Worms moved slower. Birds became more active as they had to search the garden for sunflower seeds and other food that wasn't as plentiful anymore. Leaves changed colors and fell off of the trees. The entire landscape of the outdoor environment changed during that six-week period of time and children's inquiry and learning followed suit to new areas of interests, activity and most importantly, play. In an interview Peterson (2013) conducted with Ken Finch, the founder and president of the Green Hearts Institute of Nature in Childhood, Finch stated that "when a child comes back to a place over and over again, they notice what's new, they see the small changes, they see what's different from the day before. That's important for the learning process" (Peterson, 2013, p. 47). Peterson also found that "if they care, they will come to learn" (Peterson, 2013, p. 47). Her interviews demonstrated that frequency is important. It is the daily and constant nature immersion experience that helps children to feel connected to their environment and it is these deep connections that encourage children to discover and learn from it (Peterson, 2013).
Erin Kenny (2013) states the following. "It is becoming more accepted here in America that there actually is great value in children's play. Neuroscientists are discovering that the learning centers of children's brains light up when children are engaged in play, whether it is imagination, dance, song or playing musical instruments. There is also more understanding of the brain-body connection with young children; that they incorporate new information best when they are moving as the learning is taking place. All of these new discoveries point out the inherent benefits to an outdoor classroom as the ideal learning environment for young children" (Kenny, 2013, p. 77).
When I interviewed the children regarding what they wanted to learn or know prior to Kindergarten, they gave the following responses. Butterfly stated she wanted to “know big numbers and climb trees.” Ninja stated he wanted to know “how to do a wheelbarrow like that big one.” He also thought he should know how to color, paint and “eat chives.” Princess wants to learn how to “swing because sometimes I swing on my belly.” She also stated she wants “to climb up a plant that is alive. I don’t want to hurt it so I want it to be alive.” Finally, she stated she wanted to “write and paint because sometimes I make a big blob.” In the end, when activities are centered on the children's interests, their wonder of the surrounding environment, and children are having fun, whether it involves animals, plants, imaginative play, active play, or building with loose materials, they will be more vested in their learning outcomes. In a study conducted by Melhuus (2012), the researcher stated “I sensed that the children appreciated being there because as soon as they entered the area around the hut, they started different activities and showed pleasure in doing them” (Melhuus, 2012, p. 460). Ultimately, involvement of children in decision-making regarding not only their environment but how they engage with it is essential (Melhuus, 2012). In the six-week nature immersion study, children displayed excitement and pleasure in their outdoor play and demonstrated a sense of security in their environment, which made it evident that learning was naturally occurring in an interest-led, child-driven, Flow Learning approach as Kenny (2013) describes.