Giving Children a Natural Start

Natural Start

Early Childhood Environmental Education

I recently visited a beautiful childcare center where every day the children play in a natural play yard filled with trees and hanging vines; they can tend gardens, observe insects, sit quietly under trees, and have countless other opportunities to explore and enjoy nature. It was an environmental educator’s dream come true.

But when I explained to the director that I work in environmental education, she turned her back to the nature play area and proudly directed me to the school’s recycling center. For some reason, when it comes to environmental education for young children, people often think “the environment” doesn’t mean “nature.”

Starting a Journey

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with engaging preschoolers in recycling programs (in fact, there are a lot of things right about it), it’s just one of many ways we can set children on a path to environmental literacy, which is the central goal of environmental education.

Building environmental literacy—the mix of what you know about the environment (like knowing where your drinking water comes from), how you feel about it (for example, whether clean drinking water is important to you), what skills you have to protect it (such as knowing where to safely dispose of household chemicals), and what you do to keep it healthy (for example, whether you try to conserve water)—takes time. Becoming literate in anything takes years, skills can always be improved, and experts know that the best results come when we start early.

If you want a child to become a happy, competent reader, for example, it’s vital for caring adults to share engaging books with the child from birth. The same is true for building environmental literacy: we must start early with positive experiences that give children a reason to keep learning about and caring about the world around them.

A child’s early positive experiences—watching ants march down the sidewalk, listening to birds calling in the trees, catching rainwater in a rain barrel—give children a great start that sets them up for later learning that builds into environmental literacy.

A Focus on Play and Exploration

As we know, young children are natural explorers. Babies want to touch and taste everything they can; toddlers tumble and regroup to see what is just beyond their reach; preschoolers shower parents and teachers with questions as their curiosity about the world around them grows. Luckily for environmental educators, few things capture a young child’s attention better than what is found in nature. Animals, plants, water, wind, rocks, sticks, clouds . . . the list of natural objects and phenomena that attract and delight children goes on and on.

Environmental educators use children’s attractions and curiosities about the natural world to spur learning through exploration and play. In nature preschools educators take children outdoors every day to explore wild spaces. While there, the children develop questions (I wonder what lives under this rock?), test ideas (I bet it’s something wriggly!), and work together (Help me lift this up!).

These experiences in and with nature not only help build environmental literacy, they also support whole-child development. When teachers encourage children to play and explore with an environmental learning curriculum, they also foster social and emotional growth, cognitive gains, and encourage physical development. In addition, environmental education helps children hone skills in curiosity and questioning that not only support environmental learning, but also STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills.

Nature-based play and exploration often happens outdoors, in nature, but environmental education can take place indoors, too. Natural materials can be brought indoors for examination and play. Environmental educators love the trick of wrapping tape around a child’s wrist with the tape inside out, to create a sticky bracelet. Children can stick small treasures to their bracelet as they explore, and bring them indoors later for sorting, playing, crafting, and more.

And preschoolers can turn play into projects that can span weeks or even months, both indoors and outdoors. Preschoolers in Boulder, Colorado, for example, regularly played in a park near their school. Teachers learned that the park was slated for redevelopment by the city, and city managers were seeking input from residents about what features to include in the new area. Because the children were so invested in this outdoor natural area, their teacher asked if they’d like to get involved. The children discussed the features they would like to see incorporated, developed drawings, and presented them along with other stakeholders’ suggestions. The planners considered the preschoolers’ input, and incorporated many of their suggestions in the final design.

In the Boulder school, the children’s play and exploration led them to a discovery, which spurred a project that led to the development of new skills and knowledge, which helped improve their community. This is what environmental education is all about, whether it takes place in the forest or in the classroom, in a city or in the country, in the recycling center or under the trees.

Incorporating Environmental Education

If you would like to incorporate environmental education for young children in your home, school, or community, the good news is that there are now more resources than ever to help you get inspired, get started, or refine your skills. Whether you are a family that wants to get outside with your children, a teacher looking for resources to bring the environment into your teaching, or a community thinking about how to design outdoor spaces that help children not just play, but also connect with their natural heritage, there are many experts and organizations ready to help.

In an effort to bring these providers together to make it easier for people to find them (and to help them network and share resources with each other), last year the North American Association for Environmental Education launched a new initiative called the Natural Start Alliance. We hope that Natural Start can serve as your connection to these incredible groups and dedicated professionals. We maintain a resource database, a map of early childhood environmental education providers and supporters, a listing of events and professional development opportunities, connections to research, and much more. We also publish Guidelines for Excellence in early childhood environmental education and an accompanying rating scale, if you’d like to learn more about what environmental education for young children is all about.


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About the Author Christi Merrick

Christy Merrick

is the Director of the Natural Start Alliance, an initiative of the North American Association for Environmental Education to advance environmental education for young children. During her career in environmental education, she has worked with international non-profits, universities, private companies, and government agencies to help build environmental literacy for learners of all ages. She holds a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale University and is a Switzer Environmental Fellow. 

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