There are some proven ways that children learn best, and one of them is in the outdoors exploring nature.
Time in the natural world has taken a back seat over the last decade, as children as young as two spend an increasing amount of time indoors on electronic tablets and phones. Families are busy; a walk through the park can fall low on the priority list. But nature is more than a way to spend a few spare minutes getting some fresh air, educators argue: It’s actually one of the best classrooms. Outdoor exploration gives the brain a balance of processing tasks that boost cognitive skills.
Waldkitas, German outdoor preschools that have caught on in the U.S., emphasize creative play and hands-on learning in the natural environment—digging in the dirt with a twig, feeling the soft carpet of moss on a rock. In nature, humans tend to be more receptive; our senses of smell, sight, sound, taste and touch are sharper, and we’re more open and alert.
Kids at this age naturally learn by doing. In fact, they are very driven in this way. Picking up stones, splashing through puddles, watching a worm wriggle through the dirt or a bird land on a branch—preschoolers soak it all in. But in the natural environment, teachers can do even more to enrich children’s learning: We can tap into their eagerness to be part of a team that observes, investigates and solves problems together.
The ScienceStart curriculum uses that kind of collaborative approach. Two of the modules are especially suited for outdoor study. In Neighborhood Habitat, children investigate living things. They sort, classify and describe the bits found in garden soil, like leaves, stones and insects. And in studying the life cycle of plants and animals, they learn that living things grow and die. In the Measurement and Mapping module, students use the outdoors as their laboratory to collect information using checklists, and they start to understand the concept of relative quantity by comparing the length of two sticks, for instance, or the weight of two rocks.
With opportunities to explore outside, where science lessons abound and the senses are alive, the natural world isn’t just a picture on an iPad or the view from the back seat of a minivan. It becomes something more. Immersed in nature, students learn that we are not simply observers of nature but active participants—an appreciation that can last a lifetime.