Children love to play in the mud. Beyond doubt, any child attending public school would likely tell you that they would much rather play outside, where it’s green and stimulating, rather than sit in a dull classroom all day. No child learns how to play—it is simply what comes naturally. This innate disposition that harbors inside all children is where nature-based education comes in to offer them the opportunity to learn in an outdoor environment and build holistic and practical life skills in invigorating ways that are enjoyable to the child. Children don’t just love to play in the mud—they need to play in the mud.
Nearly half of all children in Canada receive a public school education with standardized curriculum that does not focus on how each child learns individually, but instead focuses on molding each child to the same method of learning. These children may often find learning to be boring as they lack interest for the subjects being taught to them. When we offer children the opportunity to learn about whatever makes their minds tick in an outdoor environment that is naturally stimulating, suddenly they are motivated and independent learners.
In nature-based environments, children can create their own identity as a “powerful player in [their] own lives and the lives of others” through developing deeper interests as they are exposed to real-life situations with both adults and other children. Nature is their main teacher, and anything else comes from within themselves. Adults are simply supporters and co-companions to their learning, and together they create an environment of expression, individuality and wholesome well-being.
What is Nature-Based Education?
You may be wondering just what nature-based education is. Is it a school built out of leaves and twigs, situated in the heart of a forest? Is it allowing children to roam free to play in fields and meadows, without any structured learning? Maybe—maybe not.
From forest schools to simple environmentally-based learning, nature education can take a variety of forms and can either be semi-structured or unstructured. Nature-based education exists for children of all ages, from preschool to secondary school. Semi-structured nature education may involve teachers scaffolding children’s learning within outdoor environments and providing educational materials that encourage numeracy, literacy and other important and necessary skills, with books and external resources. On the other hand, unstructured learning may take a more “unschooling” approach where all outdoor learning is child-led and play-oriented, with little to no assistance from an adult. However, what both have in common is that, in the words of nature educator, Rachel A. Larimore, “nature permeates virtually every aspect” of the program.
It is natural to wonder, in a society that is driven by structure, about how it is possible for children to receive more complex education within nature schools, including arithmetic or sciences. Truthfully, there are many ways in which nature-based education is practiced, but the most fundamental philosophy that nearly all nature schools follow is the belief that outdoor education can and will “promote problem-solving skills, scientific and mathematical exploration, language and preliteracy skills.”
According to Cleveland Magazine, Mary Beth Hilborn, early childhood director at Hawken School, claims, “The natural world is one of the most complex environments a young child will ever navigate.” In an environment that requires a child to think for themselves and find solutions to problems from the real world rather than from a textbook, children thrive mentally, physically and socially. Overall, children gain valuable life skills as they learn to count and multiply with natural materials such as pine cones, rocks and sticks, learn scientific environmental and biological facts while interacting with its source and create works of in-depth art with objects found in nature.
How Nature-Based Education is Changing Schools (in Ontario and Beyond)
The existence of forest and nature schools is often unknown to the suburban city dweller. Still, with an increase in technological addiction and “techno-stress” in young children and adolescents, the need for children to be out in nature is at an all-time high. Depression rates, lack of physical activity and social isolation rates are soaring among youth as staring at screens becomes their main source of entertainment. A more startling fact is that only “6 percent of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own.” For this reason, many public schools and preschools are recognizing this and offering more ways that children can connect to nature as a facilitator to their learning without technology getting in the way.
Several schools all across Ontario have adopted a philosophy that emphasizes the need for daily nature play for growing minds. For instance, the Guelph Outdoor School is a nature school dedicated to children from ages 0-16 finding their voice within natural environments such as gardens, creeks and forests. Many indoor preschools, as well, follow philosophies that stress the importance of a healthy environment and incorporate nature into their daily routines, including the Reggio Emilia philosophy that focuses on three core principles: the child, the environment and the teacher.
Aside from the normal recess breaks that allow public-schooled children an hour or so of outdoor free time each day, several public schools from kindergarten to grade twelve have begun to realize the importance of nature in children’s ability to learn, and have therefore started seeking out ways to incorporate the outdoors in indoor learning. This includes using natural resources and materials collected from outdoors for art and science projects, or even taking field trips to nearby parks, trails and reservation areas. Many schools, inspired by organizations such as Eliza Minnucci’s Forest Kinder, may even have “Nature/Forest Days” for younger children where once a week, classes head out to visit nature spots and engage in hands-on learning.
The Benefits of Nature School
One study showed that children who attended school outdoors in a local prairie wetland had stronger reading and writing skills as opposed to children who learned in regular schools. In fact, mental, physical and social benefits are plentiful within nature-based environments, from reduced stress to overall better childhood experiences. Many of these benefits include:
Increased focus, imagination and creativity. According to Learning Lift Off, students who learn in outdoor learning environments tend to be more attentive and experience far better memorization of educational concepts. In fact, studies have shown that children who spend time in nature receive higher test scores, especially in science, demonstrating how real-life experience can enhance a child’s learning.
Advanced problem-solving skills. Trekking through wilderness and outdoor environments often requires the help of a teammate, especially when things don’t go smoothly or someone gets hurt. Many activities such as canoeing, woodworking, and cooking involve working with a partner or team. Alongside their peers, children may problem-solve real-life issues and gain valuable experience that will aid them in future endeavors.
Movement and physical activity. Children nowadays experience less physical activity than they did years ago, eliciting higher rates of exercise-related health problems. Part of this may be due to the fact that children spend the majority of their day confined in a classroom, and are later lured to more sedentary behavior at home by video games and electronic screens. In a forest school environment, however, children learn to love physical activity as a major part of their everyday lives.
Appreciation for nature and environmental sustainability. The earth is the most precious thing that all of us have, and therefore need to care for. Children who spend time in nature are more likely to appreciate it as something beautiful and vulnerable, and understand what it takes to keep the earth healthy in order to preserve it for future generations.
Above all, the benefits of nature-based education are evident. When children are learning because they want to rather than because they should, we see them become more enthusiastic about learning and as a result, take their education as a priority. In a time where a connection to nature is vital to maintaining our most precious ecosystems and lowering several major health issues. Perhaps we must begin enforcing these values into the budding generations today.