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3 Tips for Getting Started with Nature-Based Learning

September 9th, 2021 | 3 min. read

By Lisa Williford

We already know that outdoor learning and play is beneficial to children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional health. Yet it can seem overwhelming to initiate a nature-based curriculum, or add a nature-based approach to current curriculum. Rachel Larimore, author of Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning, assures that nature-based learning is achievable with small shifts, and shares three tips for getting started.

Hello, I'm Rachel Larimore and author of the Gryphon House published book, Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning. As an author, speaker, and consultant, I help early childhood educators create nature-based schools or add the nature-based approach to their existing curriculum.

It seems everywhere you turn these days, there's talk about outdoor learning, particularly in light of COVID. And there's good reason. Of course, outdoor air is safer in terms of disease transmission related to COVID, but outdoor play supports children's physical health in other ways, such as balance and coordination. Nature play is also beneficial for children's cognitive and social-emotional health. 

Yet even when we know time outdoors is good for children, it can be a daunting task. This is especially true of shifting from minimal time outdoors, like going outside for recess, to using nature as core to teaching and learning, or what we call nature-based learning. The good news is small changes can make a big difference.

Today, I'm going to share three tips for getting started with nature-based learning. Simple shifts in how we structure the class day, prepare the physical environments, or interact with children can have significant impacts when it comes to nature-based learning. So let's get started. 

1. Structure Your Day to Allow More Outdoor Time

The first suggestion I have is to structure your class day to allow for more outdoor time.

How do you do this? Well, one way to ensure more time outdoors is to start the day outside, rather than to end the day there. This allows for flexibility to extend the outdoor time if the children are engaged with play, whereas outdoor time at the end of the day is often limited by school dismissal. 

Now, I sometimes hear pushback on starting the day outside because programs often offer breakfast. Well, why not have breakfast outside, particularly when the weather is really nice, right? And speaking of meals and snacks and pleasant weather— another way to increase outdoor time, in addition to free play outside, is to have snacks or even rest time outside on the days when it's sunny and warm. Have the snack and meals, or even spend the entire day outside. 

Eventually spending time outdoors will become such a habit and a comfortable place that children will want to stay outside, even on those rainy and colder days. The key, of course, is ensuring children have the right clothing to stay warm and dry on those days. But I assure you, it is worth the effort. There's nothing quite like seeing the joy on a young child's face as they dance in the rain and jump in puddles.

2. Create a Nature-Rich Classroom Environment 

A second way to increase nature-based learning is to create a nature-rich classroom environment with intentional connections to nature. Of course, “classroom” includes both the inside space, outdoor play area, and even spaces beyond the fence, such as neighborhood parks or local nature centers. 

Creating a nature-rich classroom means selecting materials that reflect on, connect to, or help children make sense of their experiences in nature. The most effective materials for this are what we call “loose parts”. Loose parts, whether manufactured or natural, are open-ended so children can use them for multiple purposes in their play. Examples of loose parts include buckets, shovels, sticks, and pine cones. Loose parts can also be incorporated indoors and be used for sorting, making patterns, creating art projects, and so forth. It's also important to consider connections to nature when selecting manufactured materials, or human made materials. Does the item represent authentic, local nature? Also, will it facilitate exploration of the outdoors?

When creating a learning environment, materials can also help to blur the lines between the indoors and the outdoors. This can be as simple as windows to the outdoors. But it could go even further with bird feeders outside of the windows, so that kids can observe the birds outside. 

3. Connect Outdoor and Indoor Learning Experiences

A third way to get started with nature-based learning is to connect to those experiences that children are having outdoors and indoors. For example, if they've been playing with worms and are noticing them on sidewalks and when it rains outside, you can read a story about worms when you're back indoors. Or maybe it's fall and the children have been collecting different colored leaves on the ground outside. Indoors, you could encourage them to create a collage using the leaves or to make patterns out of the leaves.

The key here is that the teacher-led activities intentionally connect to the children's interests and the experiences they've been having outside. By doing this, as I mentioned with the materials, we're blurring the lines between the indoors and the outdoors. This helps children understand that we're part of the natural world, rather than separate from it, which is really a foundational principle in nature-based education.

So hopefully these tips for connecting the learning across the spaces, creating learning environments that connect to nature, and simply spending more time outside will help you to implement nature-based learning in your classroom. I'm confident that with these small shifts, you'll be inspired, and you and the children will want to spend even more time outside exploring and discovering the wonders of the natural world.

Of course, if you have any additional questions, please check out my book, Preschool Beyond Walls, or reach out to me. There are links provided on the Gryphon House website. In the meantime, keep changing lives.

Author(s)Rachel A. Larimore

Lisa Williford

Lisa Williford, an experienced marketing event coordinator, served with Kaplan Early Learning Company and Gryphon House from 2020 - 2023.