A Return to Nature-Based Education

This article was originally published in Yes! Magazine and is licensed under Creative Commons.


At the beginning of the 20th century, untempered industrialization and rampant deforestation prompted the conservation and preservation movements.

The creation of Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks at the end of the 19th century, the creation of the National Audubon Society in 1905, the passing of the Weeks Act (creating the National Forest system) in 1911, all were part of the political movement to preserve the natural world from the onslaught of commercialization and the plundering of natural resources. Similarly, to save our children, the first summer camps were founded in the 1880s and ’90s. The founding of the American Nature Study Society in 1908, and the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910 and the Girl Scouts in 1912, were part of a social movement to preserve the virtue of children’s contact with nature. In the article Why Fear of Big Cities Led to the Creation of Summer Camps, Natalia Petrzela writes that parents had become concerned that “[a] new generation of children… were missing out on the character-building, health-promoting experiences of hardy rural life: some even mentioned the peril of ‘dying of indoor-ness.’” 

Riding on the heels of industrialization and the sprawl of suburbanization, the new anxiety at the beginning of the 21st century is digitalization. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that many elementary school-age children spend as much as eight hours engaged with screens each day (computers, television, iPhones, gaming consoles) and maybe 30 minutes outside in the natural world. Similar to the response to industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century, the nature-based education movement in the 21st century intends to extract our children from the clutches of computerization.

Today, the average 12-year-old will wake up, check social media on the phone while still in bed, watch TV in the kitchen while eating breakfast (maybe), listen to music with headphones on the school bus. In school, they’ll do three hours of smarter balanced testing on a school computer and then, as a break from testing, watch an on-line video about predation in Africa. Maybe they’ll go outside for 20 minutes of recess. After school, they’ll spend two hours playing Overwatch, a team-based shooter game, with friends. Maybe, they’ll have dinner with their parents, and then after dinner do an hour of homework on a laptop before re-watching a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones or other trending series.

“Join me on a ramble to visit two of the hopeful places where children play joyfully in nature, and freedom rings.”

As reported in Children’s Environmental Health in the Digital Age, addiction to the digital world is causing numerous forms of health problems for children—greater rates of depression, more social isolation, lack of physical development and increases in obesity, increased rates of myopia, increased learning deficits in preschool children, decreased vitamin D because of lack of sunlight exposure, premature thinning of the neocortex. Sigh. Parents are freaked out about their children becoming digital addicts, and they’re avid about finding educational alternatives that set their children on a different path. 

In the face of all the bad news, the nature-based education movement makes me hopeful in spite of it all. Before our young children are falling asleep with their iPhones or Androids, before they have hordes of Instagram followers, before they are hypnotized by their Netflix accounts, let’s saturate them in nature. Let’s help them create an environmental identity before they have a social media identity. Let’s send them to a nature preschool or forest kindergarten. Let’s create communities that have a preschool to high school commitment to nature connection.

When my book Beyond Ecophobia was published in 1996, nature-infused education was in its infancy. Today, 28 years later, it has grown up, it’s moving out of its parents’ homes, and is setting up camp in rural towns, suburbia, and urban centers around the country and the world.

So take my hand and join me on a ramble to visit two of the hopeful places where children play joyfully in nature, and freedom rings. We’ll go first to the fringes of Chicagoland, about an hour west of downtown. The Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program offers immersion in almost 400 acres of prairie, woodland, and gentle creeks for 3- to 6-year-old students in the Kendall County Forest Preserve.

Pirate Treasure

One of the defining aspects of nature preschools is that the educators are committed to playing and working outside with children for most of the school day. The outdoors is, much of the time, the classroom, far from the fluorescent-lit, plastic-toyed, germ-laden air of the indoors space. Like the post office motto, “Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor rain nor heat of day nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” these teachers and children are out in all kinds of weather. Contrary to the notion that, “Oh we have to keep the children inside when it’s rainy or they’ll get sick,” nature preschool teachers believe that having the children outside in all weathers builds children’s immune systems and makes them healthier. 

So it was on a winter outing on the northern edge of the forest preserve when Megan Gessler and her students stumbled upon a geocache, a metal box sequestered in an oak tree crevice, filled with gold and silver coins. “Pirate treasure!” the children all surmised. The children assumed pirate names, Captain Orange Hissing Cat and First Mate Purple Coneflower, adopted pirate jargon, “Where we be going next, Captain Megan?” and speculated that there would be more treasure stashed around the preserve. “Maybe over on the other side of that crick,” a child speculated. Captain Megan wondered how they could get across the creek without icy cold water filling their boots, and the crew pondered for a while and decided they needed a raft for the crossing. (Ah, the spirit of Huck Finn is alive and well.) Seizing on this great problem-solving opportunity, the captain promised they’d figure out how to make a raft.

The next day, back at the indoor classroom, the crew decided to glue together a lot of big sticks they’d collected the day before. With a whole mess of glue. Which really didn’t work. And so they trundled off to a nearby stream to think through this engineering challenge. 

In an article authored by Gessler that will be in my upcoming book, The Sky Above, the Mud Below, she describes how the children were energized with ideas. “We talked about the size of the raft needed and the scale of the sticks that could hold them. How many students would be on the raft at once? What size logs? How many logs? What would hold them together?” It was almost as if she could see their minds whirring with activity, she writes.

Can you see what’s going on here? Discovery of the geocache initiated a pirate fantasy that the teacher embraced wholeheartedly. The outdoor setting, more rich in exploratory suggestiveness than the indoor setting, prompts the children to want to find more treasure, on the other side of the stream. Gessler realizes this is a grand opportunity for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, and challenges them with a real problem. How can we get across? This is what Thoreau meant when he talked about seeing castles in the air and building foundations underneath them. This is what early childhood education is supposed to be.

Remarkably, and with the right materials (hammers, nails, bandages, fabric scraps) and teacher guidance at the right points, the children manage to create a raft about six feet long by two feet wide over the next few days. Another problem then presented itself—how to get the raft to the creek? It was ungainly and heavy and the creek was ¾ of a mile away along a rough trail.

They tried to use a wagon, but the raft was too long to fit. So, they used the teacher’s heavy backpacks to weigh down the front of the raft on the bottom of the wagon while the students who walked behind the wagon held up the other end. Once they got to the creek, they placed the raft across it at a narrow point where it became more like a bridge because of the low water level. Success! It worked! They beamed with delight at their own triumph!

Needless to say, this couldn’t have happened in the church basement preschool. Or even in the university lab school early childhood center, unless the teachers and children were outside in the winter, open to the prompts of children’s imagination in the ever-changing forest. And there’s no sacrifice of classic academic goals. The conventional aspirations to literacy and math readiness, learning to get along with classmates, developing creative thinking are all happening. But there’s also scientific thinking, bonding with the natural world, and the development of grit, perseverance and resilience. And not a digital device anywhere in sight.  

Oh sure, you’re thinking, hope for middle class, suburban White kids, but what about economically disadvantaged students of color? This same form of nature preschool is happening across America in rural and urban areas. 

Tiny Trees Preschool operates in nine different urban parks in Seattle, giving urban children “the gift of a joyfully muddy childhood.” In New York City, Brooklyn Forest offers parent/caregiver and young child programs in Prescott and Central Parks. Hot tea and freshly baked treats are part of the program to assure coziness in the outdoors. Way down south, Peruvian-born Patricia Leon directs the Miami Nature Preschool amid the live oaks and Spanish moss of a downtown park surrounded by hustle, glitz, and traffic. It’s a place “that preserves the raw essence of childhood.” In Atlanta, Turning Sun Preschool offers a full spectrum, 6 months to 5 years, 8 a.m to 6pm program, that embraces “the natural world and our local community, which means we go outside every day, rain or shine.” And they use public transportation to get to parks, museums and playgrounds around the city. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, we got ourselves a movement here.

Nature Kids Lafayette: From Preschool to High School, From Backyard to Back Country

Let’s take another field trip to Lafayette, Colorado, a suburb of Boulder, a place that offers lower home prices and rental costs for lower-wage workers in the area.  As a result, Lafayette has a higher percentage of community members who identify with non-dominant groups, particularly Latino-identified community members. Lafayette has the schools with the highest rate of free and reduced lunch and the highest number of students of color in Boulder County.

In 2014, Thorne Nature Experience worked with two dozen other environmental non-profits to conduct a countywide needs assessment. A salient finding was that the Latino community was being significantly less served than the White community. In response, Thorne, in collaboration with the city of Lafayette, Boulder Valley School District, and a dozen nonprofits initiated a groundbreaking (literally and figuratively) program to address these environmental injustice issues. Nature Kids/ Jóvenes de la Naturaleza Lafayette is designed to connect Latino youth and their families to nature and the outdoors with preschool to high school, backyard to back county, family-integrated environmental education and outdoor recreation programming. They’ve raised nearly $10 million, with seed funding from Great Outdoors Colorado, to make it all happen. It’s the kind of whole system kick-in-the-butt initiative that makes me hopeful.

Keith Desrosiers, director of Thorne, describes the problem.

“Poverty in Boulder County, and especially in Lafayette, is largely invisible. It’s hidden behind fences in trailer parks and low-income housing developments,” Desrosiers explains in a video about Nature Kids. These neighborhoods are often devoid of nature and vegetation and lack adequate sidewalks and street crossings for children to safely walk or bike to school, never mind access a park, a trail or open space.”

The solution is complex, multifaceted and aspirational. First, they’re going to change the infrastructure in the Latino community around one of the elementary schools so children can safely walk/bike to school, and completely naturalize the school grounds. In addition, they’re taking a cradle-to-grave, all-hands-on-deck approach toward providing outdoor programming, led as much as possible by Latino community members. 

Carlos Lerma, Lafayette resident and Community Programs Manager describes, also in the Nature Kids video that some of the infrastructure changes that insure that all Lafayette youth live with a safe, 10-minute walk to nature.

“We designed the Nature Kids/Jóvenes de la Naturaleza with the help of the community to take away any physical, cultural, and economic barriers that keep so many of the youth that live in my community from participating in traditional recreational experiences,” Lerma explains. “Nature Kids plans to build five nature play areas, six gazebos, four pedestrian crossings, and over 2 miles of trails. The highlights of these capital projects are the $1 million nature play area and neighborhood connector trails at Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School.”

In addition, there are 82 different programs—environmental education in elementary schools, after school programs, newly designed middle and high school courses, field trips, summer camps, a youth advisory board, family camping weekends, job training initiatives, backpacking trips, wildlands restoration projects. It’s a mind-boggling array of opportunities offered by 27 collaborating organizations designed to deliver more than 500,000 hours of programming to participants from 2017 to 2022. Those are some big numbers! 

One example—students in a class at Centaurus High School learned about wildfire prevention and then participated in a fire mitigation project at Cal-wood Education Center in the Front Range mountains above Boulder and Lafayette. They thinned trees to create a defensible space in the forest, built slash piles and stacked wood. 

Teacher Erin Angel commented that, “It was hard work, but it felt good to help take care of that beautiful area that has become special to us.” Young children are tromping in streams, teenagers are becoming mentors, and families are going on their first camping trips ever in state parks. And yes, recognizing the importance of helping young children bond with the natural world, Thorne is also starting a nature preschool. And so we’ve come full circle.

When I walked into the Thorne Nature Experience building in May 2019 to work with the board of directors on their next 5-year strategic plan, I was met just inside the door by Dr. Oakleigh “Oak” Thorne, the institution’s founder, with a pair of male and female lark buntings in his clasped hands. He is the youngest 91-year-old I’ve ever met. The birds were calm, mostly because Oak knows exactly how to hold them, but also perhaps because the birds sensed that he is a gentle, kindred spirit.  

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops—at all,” begins the poem by Emily Dickinson. That’s what’s happening out there in the meadows in nature preschools and along the neighborhood trail to Alicia Sanchez Elementary School. There’s a little bit of hope perching in the souls of children, and we’re counting on that little bit of hope never stopping at all.

Oak founded what was then called Thorne Ecological Institute way back in 1954, and he’s been a leader in the open space and nature education movement throughout the west. At Thorne, he still runs the bird banding program where children as young as 12 can learn to net, band and release songbirds. What a treasure to hold delicate, wild, quietly pulsating life in your own hands.

It’s similar for me. As Wendell Berry evokes in the poem, The Peace of Wild Things, “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” I think of  joyful preschool pirates tromping in the Illinois woods and, “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

DAVID T. SOBEL, M. ED. is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department and Director of the Center for Place-based Education at Antioch University New England. His writings examine the relationship between child development, authentic curriculum and environmental education. His published books include “Children’s Special Places,” “Beyond Ecophobia,” “Mapmaking with Children,” “Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities,” “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educator,” Place- and Community-based Education in Schools with Greg Smith,” and “Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors.” Look for David’s new book “The Sky Above, the Mud Below,” in 2020.

This article was originally published in Yes! Magazine and is licensed under Creative Commons.

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