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The Benefits of Nature-Based Education

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Live & Learn

By: Liesha Eberst  |  May 16, 2024

At 53 I’m back in college, studying child development, realizing a long time dream of becoming a preschool teacher. Understanding the way a child’s brain develops over time is absolutely fascinating and I only wish I would have done this sooner. As I learn more about the different early childhood preschool philosophies such as Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia, a couple of things stand out to me - the importance of play and the importance of building a connection with nature.

Young children love being outdoors where they have the freedom to run, climb and explore the world around them. They are curious about flowers and plants, rocks, small beetles, rain puddles and even the wind. A child can play for hours outdoors, making mud pies or tracking birds as they fly through the trees. If you get a group of children together outdoors, even better! Their imaginations take over and they are playing hide-and-seek in the woods or building forts out of fallen branches. They are making up games and working together to create rules for those games. They are working together cooperatively, problem solving and risk taking.

There is no doubt that play is fun but as Maria Montessori taught us, “play is the work of the child”. As the children run and climb, they are building neural pathways and strengthening new networks of brain connections. As they build their fort they are not only enhancing their physical abilities, but they are also developing cognitive skills like math. Tracking birds through the forest leads to building new vocabulary and playing together increases social skills. Through play, children are navigating conflict, overcoming obstacles and developing resilience. 

The type of play that I’m describing can only happen outside. Most children spend their days inside a classroom, behind a desk. While this more traditional approach to education works for many children, it’s definitely not for everyone. In fact, there are some children who will have real challenges trying to fit into a more traditional school system. Erin Kenney, a recognized leader in the forest kindergarten movement, reminds us that, “children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls”. That begs the question, what if we were to move the classroom outside? 

Another philosophy that has been gaining momentum in the US, with an already rich history in the UK, is the Forest School philosophy. Forest schools were created in the 1950s in Denmark and shortly thereafter in Sweden and gained popularity in the UK in the 1990s. However, philosophers, naturalists and educators created the first forest school in the 19th century. Forest School pedagogy has been defined as "a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting”. 

It’s my experience that nature-based programs also support inclusivity and diversity by meeting each child where they’re at instead of trying to modify their behaviors to fit into a more traditional educational model. I appreciate this approach as my daughter is neurodiverse and struggled to fit into the mainstream school system. I found that a change of environment, time spent in nature, helped her better regulate her big emotions. Time in nature helped me as well and if it made a difference for us why wouldn’t it do the same for others? I quickly realized that I wanted to create a nature-based program for children and after months of research I created Snails & Turkey Tails.

While there are over 800 forest schools in the US, 50 in California alone, nature-based education can happen anywhere. In fact, you can make a few simple changes to your yard, porch or balcony and start creating nature inspired learning moments at home right now. The most important thing to keep in mind is that outdoor play should be child-centered. Let your child initiate, guide, change or even abandon the activity. There should be no formal objectives or rules for nature play. Real nature play is catching tiny critters, collecting leaves and rocks, lying in tall grass, digging for buried treasure, splashing in the creek and climbing a tree as high as you dare. 

With Mother’s Day, and then Father’s Day, on the horizon, wouldn’t it be great to step away from technology, stay out of the crowds and surround the family with nature? Here are a few ways to include the whole family in some nature play:

Bird Identification: Millions of birds are migrating every Spring. Pick-up a simple bird identification guide and head to your favorite trail. Listen for bird songs and see how many birds you can identify. What color is the bird? What size is their beak? What do their feet look like?

Find a Sit Spot: Find a special place in nature, whether it’s under a tree at the end of the yard, a hidden bend of a creek, or a rooftop garden. Visit that spot every day and notice what you see, what you hear and what you smell. Make a nature journal to keep track of your discoveries. Draw pictures or collect treasures to remind you of your time spent in nature.

Show and Tell: Go on a walking adventure near your home or at a park. Collect leaves, rocks, feathers, etc. Encourage your kids to show you what they find outside, and give them a little dedicated space where they can display their treasures (well, at least the non-living ones…).

Time in nature is never wasted. Whatever that looks like for your family, I encourage you to go outside in all kinds of weather. Splash in the puddles, climb the mountains (or really big hills) and explore the beautiful open spaces and parks in Marin County.

Liesha Eberst is passionate about early childhood education and has been teaching enrichment classes to young children for 5 years. She’s worked with places like the Bay Area Discovery Museum and WildCare and is currently studying child development at Santa Rosa Junior College. She recently created a nature-based enrichment program for young children called Snails & Turkey Tails. She lives in Larkspur with her 16 year old daughter.
More from this issue:

A Message for Mothers HERE >> 

Design Ideas for Creating a Spa Bathroom Experience for Busy Moms HERE >> 

The Benefits of Nature-Based Education HERE >> 

Mom Mindset HERE >> 

The World Needs Gifted Girls HERE >>