While the field of environmental education has long recognized the need for environmental education (EE) to be a lifelong process, efforts have generally focused on youth in the elementary and secondary grade levels. However, within the last decade, there has been growing recognition of the importance of EE for young children. Because of the importance of early childhood education in “laying a sound intellectual, psychological, emotional, social, and physical foundation for development and lifelong learning,” EE for young children is described as having “enormous potential in fostering values, attitudes, skills, and behaviors that support sustainable development” [1
] (p. 12).
At the early childhood level, EE can cultivate a child’s sense of wonder, as well as a sense of who they are [2
]. Research suggests EE experiences in early childhood support children’s interest in and knowledge of nature [3
], as well as the development of scientific and aesthetic thinking children [4
]. Phenice and Griffore’s research [5
] indicates regular and positive interactions with nature are instrumental to helping children develop a respect and ethic of care for the environment. Research by Wells and Lekies [6
] and Ewert, Place, and Sibthorp [7
] suggest early experiences in nature influence attitudes and behaviors relating to the environment, having the potential to shape subsequent environmental paths as adults.
While there is growing consensus internationally regarding the need for EE to begin early in life [1
], there are divergent views regarding what EE at the early childhood level should entail. One perspective is illustrated through the North American Association for Environmental Education’s Early Childhood Environmental Education Programs: Guidelines for Excellence [8
], which contain a set of key characteristics for guiding quality EE experiences for young children. One of the key characteristics is play and exploration, which emphasizes the importance of using the natural world and natural materials for open-ended exploration, discovery, and creativity. The framework for environmental learning characteristic emphasizes the importance of opportunities that span cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and language domains, as well as opportunities to develop environmental knowledge and skills. According to the guidelines, environmental learning is oriented toward developing a respect for the rights and feelings of others and a respect for nature, as well as developing curiosity. Environmental learning should also include opportunities to explore and investigate topics of young children’s own choosing, as well as opportunities to make decisions about their own activities in an age-appropriate way (for example, participating in caring for living things).
The characteristics collectively are grounded in the belief that EE at the early childhood level is more than a cognitive learning process; EE needs to incorporate affective experiences that ground young children’s developing knowledge, skills, and dispositions [8
]. Because young children lack the coping skills and the cognitive level to make sense of complex environmental issues, and as often the needed actions to resolve these issues lie beyond the agency of young children, EE should focus on helping children bond with nature, laying the groundwork that may encourage examination of issues and taking action as they grow [8
]. Consequently, play and exploration are used to foster in young children affective and experiential connections with nature, helping them bond with nature and laying the groundwork that may encourage examination of issues and appropriate action when they are older [8
While participants at the international workshop in Sweden, The Role of Early Childhood Education for a Sustainable Society, emphasized the need for early childhood experiences rooted in authentic questions and local contexts, they maintained, however, that in order for early childhood EE to contribute to sustainable development, it needs to be more than experiences in local contexts and more than nature discovery [1
]. Early childhood EE must include opportunities for concrete actions in favor of the environment, as well as opportunities for learning to be respectful of differences, and developing an identity as world citizens [1
]. This perspective is echoed in the authors of the chapters in Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability [10
]. Editors Davis and Elliott urge researchers and practitioners to recognize the competences of young children as “thinkers, problem-solvers, and agents of change for sustainability” [10
] (p. 1). Across this text, the contributing authors challenge traditional environmental learning notions of young children, suggesting the need for a transformative shift toward learning that encourages young children to engage in sustainability issues in authentic and meaningful ways. While acknowledging their value, Davis and Elliot [10
] suggest nature-focused approaches to EE impede thinking about young children’s capabilities as social agents with rights to participate in decision-making and action-taking in sustainability issues relevant to them—locally and in broader contexts. They strongly advocate for a more critical, participatory orientation to EE with young children.
] further expands upon this perspective, suggesting “play in nature alone is not enough to address the complexities of sustainability in the current epoch of the Anthropocene” (p. 6). While she agrees that playing outdoors in nature is essential on many levels, Elliot [11
] states nature play has been uncritically adopted by practitioners because it is a more comfortable space for them. She also suggests educators have misconceived nature play as education for sustainability, accepting a simplistic view that nature play prompts children to “readily adopt sustainable worldviews and ethics and be active citizens for sustainability” (p. 6). She further calls upon early childhood education to actively explore all dimensions of sustainability, from natural and cultural, to political and social dimensions, stating a need to “shift beyond the comfortable pedagogies of role modeling and scaffolding caring for nature and engage in more challenging and responsive dialogic pedagogies exploring worldviews, ethics and values for sustainability” [11
] (p. 6). Further examples of the critical and transformative pedagogy needed include problem-posing, advocacy, and action [11
A question that emerges from this diverging viewpoint is what contribution to global sustainability, if any, is made through the pedagogical practice of nature play? The EE research literature has long put to rest the faulty assumption of a direct and linear pathway to pro-environmental behavior [12
]. Similarly, while connectedness to nature is not a sole, nor potentially even necessary, antecedent to sustainable actions, the proposed pathway from place-based nature experiences to nature connectedness and its relationship to environmental concern and behaviors is grounded in a body of empirical studies (see [13
] for a discussion of these studies, including a call for greater consideration of the covariance and complexity in studying antecedents to behavior and cautioning against profession-level relapse into simplicity and reductionism). Beyond affective and experiential bonds with nature, what else might nature play contribute to the complexities of sustainability in the current epoch? Can it contribute as a developmentally-appropriate pedagogy for young children, as described and recommended in the Early Childhood Environmental Education Programs: Guidelines for Excellence [8
]? Or is a reorientation of the nature play movement needed toward more critical and transformative pedagogies that “not only lift consciousness of sustainability issues, but also involve children and their families in advocacy and action” [11
] (p. 6)? This divergence is the backdrop for a set of four pilot studies that collectively sought to explore the influence of nature play on four outcomes that are important in both sustainability and early childhood learning and development contexts: Curiosity, executive function skills, creative thinking, and resilience. Collectively, these exploratory studies suggest a potential value for nature play, beyond serving as a “cure for the lifestyle maladies of contemporary childhood” [14
] (p. 160), toward a meaningful contribution in the quest for a sustainable future.
3. Materials and Methods
The purpose of the four pilot studies was to explore the influence of nature preschools on four outcomes that are important in both sustainability and early childhood learning and development contexts. These four pilot studies were undertaken during the 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 academic years using a pretest-posttest non-randomized comparison group design. Pretests were administered at the beginning of the academic year (September), and posttests were administered toward the end of the academic year (April–May).
Four nature preschools in northern Minnesota served as the treatment group, and two non-nature preschools in northern Minnesota served as the comparison group. Of the four nature preschools, one was affiliated with a nature center, two were operated out of homes and licensed as family childcare providers, and one operated out of a church under a specialized family childcare license. At each of these four nature preschools, there was a caring, responsive lead teacher who had been at that particular nature preschool since its inception, serving not only as the lead teacher, but also the founder and director. All four utilized a combination of unmaintained (“wild”) natural settings, natural spaces that were minimally managed for nature play, and natural playscapes designed specifically for nature play. Each had indoor areas that were used minimally throughout the day. A child-directed approach was used at all four of these nature preschools, with the majority of time spent in free play outdoors in unmaintained or minimally maintained natural settings regardless of weather conditions (approximately four to five hours daily of play in and with nature).
While the intent was to include four non-nature preschools in the control group, it was difficult to find non-nature preschools who were willing to participate, due to concerns about further testing their children and because of the perceived time intensive nature of research participation for both parents and teachers. The two non-nature preschools were selected based on their willingness to participate, and due to being located in a similar geographic location, having a similar tuition structure, and being of a similar demographic make-up. One of the non-nature preschools was administered by the local university, and the other was affiliated with a local parochial elementary school. Both non-nature preschools had experienced teachers, with a teaching style that similarly could be described as caring and responsive. The guiding philosophy at both non-nature preschools emphasized child-directed play for supporting development across the domains, with the majority of time spent indoors in free or loosely guided play (four to five hours), with about one hour daily of teacher-led playful learning. Children at both non-nature preschools had one to two hours of daily outdoor playtime (weather permitting) in a maintained outdoor space that contained playground equipment. The cost for attending this non-nature preschool was similar to the costs associated with the nature preschools, and therefore it was assumed that participants across the nature and non-nature preschools were relatively similar in terms of economic background, as well as similar in terms of age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
Thus, participants across the preschools shared similar demographic characteristics and experienced caring and responsive teachers and a child-centered, play-based, developmentally-appropriate preschool program that aimed to support holistic development across the domains. The primary difference between the nature and non-nature preschools was in the proportion of the day spent outdoors and the location of the outdoor play time (in nature vs. in maintained outdoor setting). These shared characteristics allowed for exploring the potential influence of sustained nature play (play that takes place in and with nature) on the four outcomes of interest, beyond what one might expect to see from a high quality, play-based non-nature preschool program.
Following Institutional Review Board approval of the research protocol, all children at the participating preschools were invited to participate through the parent consent process. Parent consent rates were high across all of the programs (90–100%). Details regarding the participants, research instruments, and data analysis are provided in the following sections, in the context of the results for each of the four pilot studies.
The results of this set of pilot studies suggest the potential of extended periods of unstructured play in outdoor natural settings to contribute important and relevant dispositions and skills to sustainability. Nature play appears to support the integration of initiative and persistence into information-seeking, exploratory behavior (curiosity), as well as supporting the development of the fluency dimension of creative thinking and the initiative and self-regulation dimensions of the total protective factors that are associated with resilience. Additionally, children are developing executive function skills necessary for goal-directed behavior at rates that exceed national norms and are comparable to other high quality, non-nature preschools.
However, it is important to consider these findings in the context of the studies’ limitations. The lack of a randomized control group limits the internal validity of the studies, making it difficult to causally attribute the significant growth in these constructs to participation in nature preschools and presumably nature play. However, this limitation was somewhat, yet insufficiently, addressed through the use of nonequivalent group groups and comparisons with normed reference groups when possible. The results further lack external validity, due to the homogenous nature of the participants (primarily Caucasian and of middle to high socio-economic status). Thus, care is needed in interpreting these results and making generalizations from them, and further research is needed to more rigorously examine the influence using larger and more diverse groups of participants and to isolate the effect of nature play from other aspects of nature preschool participation. Yet while more research is needed, these results are encouraging.
The context for these pilot studies is the international call for a more critical and transformative approach to early childhood education for sustainability, including the adoption of pedagogies such as advocacy and action-taking in sustainability issues locally and more broadly. While nature play has been described as an impediment to young children’s contributions to sustainability [10
], these studies instead speak to its positive influence, with children growing in capabilities and dispositions that are very relevant to the goal of sustainability. Through the strength-giving landscape of nature play, these studies suggest children are developing social and emotional protective factors that can be relied upon in the face of adversity; they are developing the abilities to be creative thinkers who at the same time can employ the executive function skills of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. They are fine-tuning their innate curiosity, demonstrating skills of being able to persist beyond initial information-seeking exploratory behavior toward increased sense-making. And they are doing so through the developmentally appropriate pedagogy of play.
Play is the primary vehicle of learning in early childhood and thus having a focus on play is fundamental to any curriculum that is developmentally appropriate for preschool [55
]. Play is essential to healthy brain development, contributing to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children so integrally that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child [56
]. The composite effect of a play-based, emergent curriculum in a natural environment appears to enhance healthy child development, beyond what might be achieved through either play or nature alone.
Natural settings and materials afford unique experiences, particularly when children are provided sustained time and freedom to interact with them as capable and autonomous decision-makers. Chawla, Keena, and Pevec [57
] found elementary school students expressed value in the free movement and free choice during recess in their green schoolyard. They speculate that the “freedom of choice, a great variety of objects for discovery, and loose parts that children could use imaginatively” enabled children to select roles and activities in which they felt comfortable and competent [57
] (p. 11). They further speculate that this cooperative, imaginative play afforded by the free play, nature environment supported feelings of effectance (seeing they can have a visible impact on their environment) and a sense of efficacy (feelings of mastery and self-esteem that develop through repeated experiences of successfully meeting challenges). They also noted the supportive peer relationships facilitated through children’s freedom to choose from a variety of potential activities that afforded cooperative activities and gave them control over social interactions and roles [57
]. In the pilot studies at hand, similar reasoning could be applied. The child-initiated, unstructured nature play in the nature preschools affords diverse and expansive opportunities for young children to take appropriate risks, set their own goals, problem-solve, and choose roles and activities that support positive peer relationship and produce feelings of comfort and competence. While child-initiated play in an indoor setting or on a playground might allow for some of this, it seems possible that the opportunities for these experiences are even greater in nature, as the boundaries and variety and holistic challenges are likely to be more authentic and extensive.
These pilot studies offer reasons for not abandoning nature play in the pursuit of sustainability. The results suggest nature play has value beyond supporting healthy child development and serving as an antidote for the “lifestyle maladies of contemporary childhood” [14
], but in the sustainability context as well. As researcher and play advocate Joan Almon notes, “As with so many aspects of healthy development, children have an innate capacity to be resilient” [58
] (p. 5). Based on the findings from these pilot studies, preschools are helping bring that capacity to fruition, providing children with a strong foundation for meeting life’s obstacles, including the complexity of sustainability challenges. Similar could be said for other outcomes explored in this set of pilot studies, such as creative thinking and curiosity. Innate tendencies, such as curiosity and creativity, can be reawakened and fostered rather than extinguished through nature play.
For over a decade, author and researcher David Sobel has been cautioning against laying the weight of the world’s environmental problems on children already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature [59
]. With the call for a more critical and transformative form of early childhood environmental education, younger and younger children are being asked to bear the weight of pursuing a more just and sustainable present and future. At the same time, the education research literature is warning of the “academification” of early childhood education, or the trickle-down effect of high stakes testing and academic-focused elementary school curriculum that prioritizes cognitive development over development across the domains. Sobel writes, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, ‘the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.’ ” [59
] (p. 39). As children grow in their goal-directed problem-solving skills and creative thinking abilities, as they grow in curiosity and persistence, and as they have opportunities to develop the social and emotional strengths that can be relied upon in adversity, they are being strengthened at the core. Through nature play, they are developing a solid foundation from which in due time can be drawn upon for participating in visioning and creating a healthy, just, and sustainable future. This seems to be a far cry from the uncritical, misconceived, and simplistic pedagogy that nature play has been criticized for being.