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A post-occupancy study of nature-based outdoor classrooms in early childhood settings


Nature-based outdoor classrooms enhance children’s learning, behavior and developmental outcomes

This study examined two nature-based, early childhood, outdoor classroom educational programs: Nature Explore & The Outdoor Classroom Project. The purpose was to determine the extent to which these programs were satisfying their desired educational and developmental goals.

Based on a list of varied requirements, the authors collected data from 11 completed playground sites located in California (n=3), Colorado (n=1), Illinois (n=2), Maryland (n=1), Nebraska (n=2), and Texas (n=1). Of these sites, seven were categorized as early childhood centers, two as domestic violence shelters, one as a library, and one as a special needs elementary school. The authors employed a mixed-methods approach and conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (observation of the use of the space after introduction of newly designed elements) using semi-structured interviews with teachers or administrators who were directly involved with the outdoor classroom.

The findings revealed that play in naturalized areas positively contributed to learning and developmental outcomes. This nature-based play and learning influenced cooperation skills and reduced conflict – attributed by both authors and educators to an increased connection with living things, natural cycles and full-bodied interaction. Additionally, teachers reported better overall behavior through the use of outdoor classroom space. Authors and teachers linked this finding to children’s ability to use their “outdoor” voices, the ability to run around, and to the variety and abundance of natural elements and materials with which to engage leading to fewer opportunities for competition (or not sharing). Direct experience with nature provided greater interest in topics introduced indoors triggered by experience that was relevant, real-world, and tangible. Play with natural elements (e.g., sticks, leaves, stones, sand, mud, etc.) was found to engage children longer than traditional play materials, supporting greater cooperation and pro-social behaviors. Natural playgrounds and outdoor classrooms also provided health and well-being benefits to teachers, whose attitudes and well-being no doubt influence that of their students.



Dennis, Jr., S. F., Wells, A., Bishop, C., (2014). A post-occupancy study of nature-based outdoor classrooms in early childhood settings. Children, Youth and Environments, 24(2), 35-52.


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