Thirty years ago, I was a newly hired faculty member in the Department of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Many of my graduate students were working as teachers in classrooms with young children with disabilities.
Teaching strategies, at the time, were based in part on behavior modification principles. This approach uses positive and negative reinforcements to develop desired skills and behaviors. For young children with and without disabilities, using language to communicate is one such behavior that needs to be developed. Teachers and parents sometimes use candy, praise, or certain privileges (such as screen time) as positive reinforcements or incentives. I saw a different kind of incentive during one of my visits to a preschool classroom.
A mother had just arrived with her three-year-old daughter who had autism. It was early November, and the child had not spoken a word in school since she first started in September. As the mother stopped to talk to the teacher, the child walked over to a table where eggs had been incubating for the past several weeks. As the child watched, a chick started pecking its way out of an egg. The child ran back to her mother, grabbed her mother’s arm, and said “Look!” While the hatching of the chick was a surprise to the child, her first spoken word in the classroom was an even greater surprise to the mother and teacher. I reflected on how so many other efforts to encourage the child to talk or communicate were ineffective. The hatching of a chick was the stimulus that worked.
After that incident, I turned to what I intuitively felt would be more motivating to children than candy, praise, or privileges. I turned to nature. I encouraged teachers to add more natural elements to their classrooms, to plant vegetables and flowers in the schoolyards, and to add logs and rocks to their outdoor play spaces. Feedback on how this worked with children was overwhelmingly positive. I then applied for grants to expand my work in connecting children with nature. I had very little research evidence to support my claims, and some of the granting agencies were quite skeptical. Yet, I did get funds to further investigate the potential benefits of nature-based learning for young children. One grant funded the development of a resource library for early childhood teachers interested in making nature an integral part of their programs.
A problem I encountered in implementing this grant was finding sufficient materials to fill even one small library shelf. There simply weren’t enough materials available at that time. This same grant-funded site visits to all the nature-based early childhood programs I could find in the United States. I could find only 4. Today, there are more than 250.
Since the early 1990s, interest in nature-based learning has grown tremendously. So has research to document the effectiveness of looking to nature as a positive stimulus and milieu for learning. I’ve now worked with the Children & Nature Network as Curator of the Research Library for about four years. We are celebrating a milestone!
The C&NN Research Library now holds 1000 summaries of research relating to children and nature. What was once just a feeling – or intuition – about how to promote children’s learning and development is now well documented by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines and from many countries around the world.
One of the things I learned through my work with the Research Library is that the value of nature for children extends far beyond the realm of education. Mental health and other health-care professionals, social workers and parents, urban planners and entrepreneurs, architects and artists are all realizing that nature is good for children. What were just seedlings of ideas and initiatives in the early 1990s have grown into impressive programs and a formidable movement. What was once a lonely endeavor has expanded to a community of enthusiastic supporters.
Research evidence supporting the children and nature movement has more to offer than quantity. All the studies in the C&NN Research Library have passed a professional review and been published in respected academic journals. Now that there are 1000 studies in the Library, do we have the complete story on issues related to children and nature? No, the story continues; and further research is required. While there are more and more studies of excellent quality being published, the field still has work to do in ensuring that the most sophisticated research approaches are routinely used. Also needed are more studies examining the mechanisms or pathways through which nature benefits children. While we may know that connecting children and nature is good for children and the environment, how to make the connections in the most effective, culturally sensitive, and equitable ways are challenges we still need to address.
Future studies will need to identify the characteristics of nature (e.g., type, size, composition, and other aspects of nature experience) to determine which features have the greatest impact at what stages in an individual’s life. Also to be considered are individuals’ experience of nature (e.g., gardening, walking in a natural area, engagement in conservation efforts, etc.) and how personal characteristics affect response to nature. Future research needs to address why and under what circumstances nature is relatively more important for the disadvantaged, who are among those most likely to experience nature deprivation. In conducting our research and developing our initiatives, we need to listen to many voices. We need to hear the voices of people from different countries, from people working in different professions, from the disenfranchised and disenchanted, from city dwellers and rural dwellers. We also need to hear the voices of children, who tell us in many ways that nature is important to them.
The rich and wide-ranging studies in C&NN’s Research Library have contributed immensely to our understanding of the importance of — and many nuances related to — our work in connecting children and nature. With this research, we now have overwhelming evidence that access to and engagement with nature is critical to the holistic development of children. While there’s no doubt that research and initiatives relating to children and nature have grown dramatically since the early 1990s, increased urbanization during this same time period places a special urgency on identifying ways to make nature engagement a daily experience for all children.
Embedded in some of the studies – and perhaps intuitively understood by many of us – is the idea that research alone can’t tell us everything. There are times when listening to nature itself is the best way to realize that our connections to the rest of the natural world are critical to the well-being of us all.
Additional Reading and Resources
C&NN’s Research Library
North American Association for Environmental Education
National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)
HEADING TO THE FOREST: Bringing Joy, Accomplishment & Hope to Children
TOWARDS ECOPHILIA: Being Hopeful in Spite of It All
BACK TO THE SCHOOL OF THE FUTURE: The Real Cutting Edge of Education Probably Isn’t What You Think It Is
THE HYBRID MIND: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
TEN WAYS TEACHERS CAN FORTIFY THEIR STUDENTS WITH VITAMIN N
C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative