About four years ago, Tina Brouwer was hiking with her daughter, Ayla, in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge when they shared a moment that changed the way Brouwer viewed her relationship with nature. An avid rock climber with an educational background in ecology and natural resources conservation, spending the day scrambling sandstone boulders and enjoying the shaded trails came as second nature for this adventurous mom. That day, however, Ayla introduced her to a new side of that familiar landscape.
Ayla, then a spunky 5-year-old with endless curiosity, often traveled those forest trails barefoot. That day, she was delighting in a bright-green, squishy piece of moss, and as any child might, beckoned her mom to revel in the experience.
“She said ‘Mom, you have to feel this! You have to put your feet on this!'” Brouwer recalls. But rather than finding Ayla’s exuberance charming, she admits she just wanted to get on with the hike. “She was emphatic that I take my shoes off and put my feet on the moss, and so I humored her and took my shoes off. But when I surrendered to that moment and put my feet on it, I was like ‘Whoa! This is awesome!’ It sent a feeling through me that went straight to my heart.”
Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time outdoors knows that nature resonates deep within us, serving not only as a conduit for understanding ourselves, but for connecting with community and understanding the broader world around us. Brouwer’s daughter opened her eyes to that realization during that moment on the moss.
“Everything I showed her was in a teaching way, and not focusing enough on the intrinsic value of nature — that it’s not valuable just because of the benefits it brings us, but it’s valuable in and of itself,” she says. “She developed a relationship with it that was fascination more than anything else.”
Something about that moment clicked for Brouwer, and she began to view nature as not just a subject to learn about, but a space in which to revel, explore, and play.
Not long after that hike, Brouwer teamed up with another mother to co-found Red Oaks Forest School, a space where Mother Nature is the classroom and children learn through unstructured outdoor play.
The Nature of Nature School
Often called “nature” or “forest” schools in the United States, the early childhood outdoor education style was inspired by European nature kindergartens. Biology and ecology are at the heart of the program and are studied in an immersive environment. The classroom isn’t contained within four walls, and learning begins as soon as the child’s boots hit the mud. For a large portion of the school day (if not all of it), desks and blackboards are traded in for meadows and woodlands. Learning happens not through rote memorization, but through unstructured free play, where children are left to explore the outdoors with minimal adult guidance.
According to David Sobel, education faculty at Antioch University New England and author of multiple books on childhood and nature, nature schools were introduced to the U.S. alongside the Earth Day movement in the 1970s. Sobel says they’ve steadily risen in popularity over the past decade, quite possibly in response to our increasingly digitized lives. While nature preschools and kindergartens are becoming increasingly popular, other models that complement more traditional forms of education are emerging as well. Family nature clubs encourage kids and parents to explore the outdoors together. Many schools have incorporated school gardens and “green schoolyards,” which replace conventional playground equipment with things such as ponds, food forests, and natural structures to climb on.
“What everybody wants to see are kids that are more centered, more self-directed, more emotionally stable, more physically active, and know how to take initiative,” Sobel says. “If we have a more nature-balanced education, those are the things we’re going to see in kids.”
In much of his writings and teachings, Sobel argues that in order for children to develop a healthy stewardship of nature, as well as thrive academically and socially, it’s critical they engage in unstructured play in nature starting at an early age.
Power in Playtime
If the idea of setting aside reading, writing, and arithmetic for puddle jumping, frog catching, and log climbing sounds like a stretch, you’re not alone. Even Brouwer, who wanted to teach her daughter everything she knew about nature, says that transitioning from formal schooling to education founded on unstructured free play took some getting used to.
“I’ve had to retrain my brain about how play is educational,” she says. “Subconsciously, I’ve been recognizing changes and patterns in the kids who have been with Red Oaks since the beginning, and it’s been really interesting to me to see how these things I’m learning now are reinforcing things I’ve seen with my own eyes.”
Research shows that unstructured play promotes academic readiness in numerous ways, including impacting cognitive development, social interactions, and health and wellness. According to reports released by the Children & Nature Network, an organization aiming to increase equitable access to nature, spending time in nature:
- Enhances creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
- Boosts reading, writing, math, social studies, and science performance.
- Increases focus and attention while reducing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Increases enthusiasm for and engagement with learning.
- Improves relationship skills and impulse control.
- Reduces anger, stress, and disruptive behavior.
- Reduces nearsightedness.
- Increases physical activity, which reduces the risk of obesity.
Brouwer found outdoor play was critical for Ayla’s educational formation, and it led to her decision to home school.
“I noticed early on that my daughter had an overabundance of energy, and I didn’t want her to be labeled as a troublemaker because she wasn’t made for a classroom,” Brouwer says. She’s noticed how Ayla, now 9, has developed confidence and is comfortable with herself. “She has incredible physical abilities, is so smart and so gifted. Nature provides a perfect classroom for her to stay engaged, move her body, and find peace so she can come back for the rest of her education.”
And while unstructured free play is at the core of most nature-based education programs, oftentimes program facilitators act as academic “guides,” encouraging learning as it naturally occurs — for example, helping children count leaves, or identify an insect or tree they encounter.
DIY Nature School
Whether you and your family decide to pursue traditional schooling or, like Brouwer, use a nature-based model to supplement home school curriculum, there are plenty of ways to use your own land or nearby public natural areas to instill a love of learning in your children. Consider teaming up with other like-minded parents to form a nature-based school or playgroup. The national network Tinkergarten trains parents and provides activities to start local nature-based programs. Here are some tips to get you started so you can provide your children with the education of a lifetime.
1. Tone Down the Tech.
The average amount of screen time children encounter on a daily basis has increased to up to eight hours per day, while the average amount of outdoor time has decreased to 45 minutes per day, according to Sobel. While limiting screen time is every conscious parent’s mantra, you may feel conflicted about leaving your child vulnerable in an increasingly digitized world. Instead of completely swearing off all things tech, focus children’s tech use by implementing digital media in ways that enhance outdoor time. For example, use tablets to create nature photo essays and video documentaries, introduce apps that help identify wild plants, or use graphic design software to create trail signage.
2. Mix Up the Setting
A central tenet behind nature-based learning is creating a sense of place — a familiar area that children connect with on a regular basis. But Brouwer also encourages varying the setting in which children interact with nature. Check out the various habitats, such as creek beds, meadows, ponds, and woodlands around where you live. If there’s a favorite spot you and your children frequent, note the differences in that habitat during the changing seasons.
3. Dress for Success.
Having children outdoors for extended periods of time during all types of weather is important for fostering resiliency. “They learn that they are a lot stronger than they think they are,” Brouwer says. However, dressing appropriately for the weather is key. Invest in a good rain jacket, a pair of rain boots, and snow gear, and always pack layers. Inform other parents that children will be outdoors during all types of weather and should be dressed appropriately.
4. Prep Your Pack — And Your Parents.
During nature school, children need to carry their supplies for the day, including food and hydration, on their back. If you’re leading a nature-based school or playgroup, educating parents about proper gear is critical for success and safety. “Make sure parents know what to expect,” Brouwer says. “Make sure they have lots of food and make sure they understand that what they’re coming to aren’t adult-directed activities or high supervision.”
5. Adapt to the Ages.
While nature and forest schools often cater to preschool- and kindergarten-aged children, nature-based schooling and activities can be adapted to suit the developmental needs of your growing child. Sobel writes in EarthEd (State of theWorld): Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet that while elementary age activities focus on exploration and adeptness of the physical world, middle and high school programs use nature to deepen rite-of-passage experiences and cultivate leadership skills that lead to social action. So while spending the day studying worms in the garden may be meaningful for your 4-year-old, taking your teens on a weeklong back-country canoe trip may give them an experience that teaches important relational and survival skills.There are numerous resources available that provide ideas for age-appropriate activities, including Sobel’s book Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors, and the Pathway to Stewardship & Kinship website, which provides nature-based activity ideas organized by age. Research different ideas and techniques as you develop your programming, and don’t be afraid to let the children lead their own learning.
Run (Barefoot) With It
Perhaps you’ve already had an “aha!” moment of your own, where you realized that time on the trails or feet in the sand is necessary to the health and happiness of your family. Or perhaps you’re just beginning to search out ways to get your kids more engaged with the real world instead of a virtual one. Take a cue from Ayla: Throw off your shoes and let Mother Nature take over your imagination — that’s where learning begins.
- Children & Nature Network: a hub of research, community networks, and training tools with the goal of increasing children’s engagement with nature.
- Natural Start Alliance: a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and a coalition of educators, parents, organizations, and others who want to help young children connect with nature and care for the environment.
- Tinkergarten: a technology-enabled network of leaders that brings families together in a natural place in their community for classes where kids learn through play.
- In Bloom Conferences: a series of one-day conferences offered by Antioch University New England featuring early childhood educators and workshops to help you engage in the nature programming of your choice.
- Pathway to Stewardship & Kinship: program guidance that supports healthy child and youth development through a series of age-linked “Landmark” activities from birth through the teen years.
Rachael Dupree is a writer in central Kentucky who enjoys exploring nature with her husband and 1-year-old daughter.