Children today spend just half the time outside that their parents’ generation did. The consequences of our nature-deficit disorder are still largely anecdotal, but obvious: shorter attention spans. Diminished cognition. Lowered creative-thinking skills. Childhood obesity.

Meanwhile, some experts have come forward with a shocking new stat: that kids ought to be outside, on average, between three and six hours a day. That’s almost exactly what they’re spending on their computer screens; but more than six times the amount of outdoor hours the average child gets these days.

One way for our screen-addicted culture to hit these numbers? Nature preschools, where childhood education is centered around time spent in the great outdoors (one survey found that, on average across all nature preschool programs, students spent three-quarters of the school day outside). This style of classroom is gaining traction—from suburbs to cities—and fast. There are now more than 250 nature preschools and kindergartens serving around 10,000 US children every year—a 66-percent increase over the year prior.

The number of nature-based preschools has dramatically increased over the last couple of years.
Image: Natural Start

Living apart from nature is taking a toll on children.

We know animals thrive best in their natural, outdoor environments. But when it comes to our own animalness, this fact is often overlooked. You’ve seen what happens to animals stuck in a cage in a zoo: the pacing, the outbursts, the stress and anxiety. In a way, we do that to ourselves by staring at our phones or being stuck behind a desk instead of running around in the woods or feeling the sunshine on our skin. And we’ve designed a cultural, educational structure that overlooks the fundamental connection between the setting we’re in and our brain's ability to function properly for learning.

No one suffers the damaging effect of this more than our children; who are being robbed of what the Washington Post refers to as a “free-range childhood, where kids spend hours outside playing in local parks, building forts, fording streams and climbing trees.” Those experiences—which incidentally affect our development, ability to work with others, creativity, you name it—have been traded for solitary time in front of video games, computer screens,TV, and even after-school clubs or sports (which may be outside, but are highly structured).

But a growing mountain of research is showing the massive extent nature can play in improving early childhood development and education. Which is exactly why the work of people like Emilian Geczi, Ph.D., is so important.

Children deserve a natural start.

Geczi is the director of the Natural Start Alliance, a project developed by the North American Association for Environmental Education. The alliance is comprised of educators, organizations, parents and others working to connect young children with the natural world. “We’re encouraging people to look at a more nature-based approach to education,” Geczi said. “We are essentially a sort of cheerleader for the field. The National Association for Environmental Educators was started to support those educators and researchers and advocates for nature-based, early childhood education. So we are trying to support the professionals in the growing field, drive excellence in programming, and bring more programs to more schools around the country.”

Natural Start works directly with parents and educators, equipping them to design educational experiences that get kids outside, encourage interactions with nature, instill a sense of exploration and wonder, and impart skills that down the road will connect individuals to their communities.

“The way we look at it is, there is a lot of value to an education that takes place in nature,” Geczi said. “The children learn from and with nature. The value of this kind of an education to kids is cognitive development, social, emotional and spiritual development—being connected to the world around them and the changing seasons and the changing environments in a way that being a classroom is sort of harder to do. So there are also some unique benefits to it.”

To accomplish this, Natural Start aggregates extensive research into the integral role of nature and “direct experiences with the environment” in early childhood development and education. The project uses these findings to educate new, effective ways to carry out education programs. From there, Natural Start provides support to people connecting kids with the outdoors while advocating for high-quality, nature-based outdoor education for children.

Once seen as a distraction, the outdoors is now recognized as essential to well-developed brains.

“There is a lack of understanding of how the brain works and what is good for development,” said Cathy Jordan, PhD, LP, consulting research director at Children & Nature Network and associate professor of Pediatrics and Extension at the University of Minnesota. “Recall there was a period of time when school buildings were designed to limit views to the outdoors, believing that students would be distracted and unable to pay attention to what was happening at the front of the classroom. We now know that natural views from classroom windows improve attention and reduce stress. Education—from school design to pedagogical practices—has a ways to go to implement what we know from research. We are also not preparing teachers to teach using nature. Teacher prep and professional development programs will need to change.”

Moving toward a more holistic approach to education isn’t going to be easy in the era of No Child Left Behind, which favors tests over allowing students the space to ask questions.

“No Child Left Behind fundamentally changed how we think about education, what outcomes we value in education, and what activities we value or accept in educational practice,” Jordan said. “With the focus on test scores and the belief that in-the-seat direct instruction is how you improve test scores (not an accurate belief), many activities—from recess to field trips, to art and music—were reduced or cut. The second, I think, related trend is what David Sobel calls the ‘academification’ of early childhood. Academic content is being pushed into lower and lower grades and the behavioral expectations of elementary students are also being pushed onto younger children: to be able to sit and listen, take in instruction, etcetera. Play of all sorts, including nature play, has sometimes taken a back seat to the focus on school-readiness skill development.

But this is misguided; as elementary teachers will tell you that they value the nonacademic skills related to self-regulation, social skills, and problem solving more than early literacy and numeracy skills in terms of being ready to function in school. This is about two things: not understanding practices and environments that will actually result in test score improvement; and an obsession with test scores as the educational outcome of value.”

And parents are starting to take notice.

“I think in some ways, many parents are enrolling kids in nature preschools because they feel that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of standardized testing,” Geczi said. “And they know that nature provides so many opportunities for open-ended play, creative play, collaborative play. More parents and more educators are understanding that.”

Getting kids outside to learn has instant ramifications.

“We don't have a lot of research on the contribution of lack of nature exposure on the development of emotional/behavioral issues in children, but we do know that children with such issues can benefit from nature contact, nature play and nature-based education,” Jordan said. “For example, collaborators at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (Ming Kuo, Andrea Faber Taylor and Bill Sullivan) have done a number of studies that provide insight into the ADHD/nature link.”

For Geczi, just seeing the transformation children in these programs undergo in the first few days is staggering. “At our conferences we have a day of field trips to local model programs, so we try as a staff to get out and for educators to learn from visiting each other’s programs,” he said. “And it’s amazing: how the kids after just a few days in a program like this, just become so alive and so… collaborative in terms of helping each other out, crossing over a log, or building a fort... or noticing the deer. On a personal level, I was very impressed to see how they kind of use their senses and come alive and collaborate with one another.”

In a 'free school' setting, students have a say in what they learn.

Nature preschools support a “free school” philosophy, where students drive the lesson plans.

“One common thread is an emergence type of philosophy to this education,” Geczi said. “The focus of the day is often driven by what the children are curious about; perhaps what they found during their time outside, and the educators bring that topic back into the classroom and use books or drawings or other educational tools and approaches to further inquiry into that same topic. Maybe they found a nest that was blown by the wind, or a tree trunk that was split open in a thunderstorm. Whatever piques the students’ interest will drive the learning by the educator.”

An added benefit of this sort of education is appealing to students who learn differently and have varied strengths.

“I believe that nature preschool can benefit children with a wide range of skills, dispositions and learning styles, because both the being in nature and the play focus are developmentally appropriate and the usual practice is to allow the child considerable power to influence the learning,” Jordan said. “For children who have a harder time controlling behaviors [such as] talking ‘too much’ or ‘too loudly,’ or needing to move, and therefore tend to seem disruptive in the indoor classroom, learning outdoors can fundamentally change their educational pathway and identity as a student. The expectations are different indoors and outdoors. The child who needs to move, needs to talk, needs to be social, is in their element outdoors. And because these behaviors are not seen as disruptive—in fact, they could be encouraged in outdoor learning—this child can have a very positive educational experience that sets them up for success in later grades.

“Contrast that with the poor self-esteem and negative attitudes about school and learning that can develop when a child is constantly being redirected by the teacher, isn't feeling accepted or understood, and isn't able to function to their potential in the classroom setting.”

More research is necessary, of course. But the potential for nature-based learning is hard to ignore—and hard to limit to just early childhood education.

“We are actually embarking this year on a survey of teacher preparation programs in higher education that have a nature-based approach,” Geczi said. “We are trying to understand what colleges and what universities are training teachers in nature-based competency and education… to us that is one of the steps toward potentially a national type of certification or accreditation.”

And, hopefully, a future where every student has the chance to learn by tactile immersion in the place we’re all ultimately designed to be.