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Playing with nature: Supporting preschoolers' creativity in natural outdoor classrooms


Natural outdoor classrooms promote preschoolers’ creativity in the areas of problem-solving and ingenuity

This case study was conducted at two separate but similar natural outdoor classrooms involving preschool children and their teachers. The aim of the study was to determine how natural outdoor classrooms support children’s imagination and creativity, specifically in the areas of problem-solving and ingenuity. Data collection and analysis focused on children’s three-dimensional manifestations (built constructions) of creativity rather than on the creative arts. Teachers in both programs served as co-researchers in this study.

The design and use of both outdoor classrooms – one in Nebraska, the other in California – were based on the Nature Explore Guiding Principles developed by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Nature Explore programs are designed to promote children’s learning through a hands-on, experiential approach based on the needs and curiosity of young children. They are also designed to connect children with the natural environment.

“Nature Notes” developed by the teachers were used for data collection. All teachers working in the Nature Explore classrooms were trained and experienced in using Nature Notes to document children’s experiences and activities. Nature Notes include written descriptions and photographs and/or sketches of children’s work. The research director at each site coordinated the collection of the Nature Notes and then worked together in analyzing the data. Fifty-Two Nature Notes were individually analyzed using a systematic, methodological approach. Teachers, in their roles as co-researchers, then checked the analysis for accuracy. They also provided interpretations and elaborations when appropriate.

Four factors in natural outdoor classrooms that enhance children’s creativity and imagination were identified: (a) predictable spaces, (b) ample and consistent time, (c) open-ended materials, and (d) caring, observant adults who support creative play and learning. Thirty-six of the 50 Nature Notes (72%) included elements of 2 or more of the key themes; 28% had three or more. Most of the activity captured in the Nature Notes occurred in the outdoor playspaces where natural loose materials (such as sticks, stones, sand, and plant materials) were readily available. The most commonly used materials were plants or plant parts. Twenty of the 50 nature notes (40%) indicated that time played a key role in children’s creativity and engagement. In some instances, children remained engaged in a single activity for 30-90 minutes at a time.

While this study adds to the literature supporting the value of natural outdoor classrooms, the authors offer suggestions for further research on how nature-filled environments can foster the learning and well-being of all young children, including children with varying abilities and backgrounds.


Kiewra, C., Veselack, E., (2016). Playing with nature: Supporting preschoolers' creativity in natural outdoor classrooms. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1)


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