Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice: Environments

Learning environments in nature preschools are guided by two goals: meeting children’s developmental needs and promoting children’s active engagement with nature.

Nature preschools prioritize playing and learning in the outdoors. Outdoor environments can include bounded play spaces and more wild spaces. Most nature-based programs also include indoor spaces. In all of these environments, programs use nature and natural elements to support children’s development.
As in any early childhood program, safety considerations come first when thinking about children’s environments. For practices related to ensuring safe learning environments for children (for example, how to assess the safety of outdoor spaces or considerations related to supervision in different types of outdoor spaces), please see the “Safety” chapter.
The following is a summary of the teaching practices in the Guidebook. Download a pdf of the summary practices here, or find full details on the considerations related to these practices in the Guidebook

Universal Elements

Some of the considerations related to a nature-based preschool’s environments apply to any setting, whether indoors or outdoors. They are universal themes that guide the design and use of spaces for children to play and learn while they are in the care of the program. The following practices relate to these essential elements.
1. Natural and environmentally friendly materials are used as a primary source for construction, play, and learning.
2. Environments are designed to accommodate the flexible and changing nature of the nature-based curriculum.
3. Environments are designed or modified as needed to accommodate the needs of every child in the program.
4. Activity centers provide predictable spaces that promote learning in all developmental domains through interactions with natural materials, other children, and teachers.
5. Spaces provide for children’s transitions between activities, whether through transition spaces, transition routines, or both.
6. Programs are attentive to the need for storage of gear and materials in indoor and outdoor environments.

Managed Outdoor Spaces

Managed outdoor spaces are regularly used outdoor environments that are designed and managed by the school community for children’s play and learning. These spaces might be called the “playground,” “play space,” “outdoor classroom,” “outdoor learning environment,” “nature play space,” “nature playscape,” or other terms. Typically, these spaces are adjacent to or near the indoor space. In the case of schools that have no indoor space, these are the managed spaces that children use regularly. These spaces also are usually fenced or bounded in some way. For licensed preschools, this space is usually governed by licensing guidelines.
These managed spaces provide a safe and predictable place for children to interact with nature, their peers, and their teachers through their play. In nature based programs, these managed outdoor spaces provide play experiences similar to those found in traditional playgrounds—places to swing, slide, balance, climb, dig, and ponder, for example—but with dynamic, living, natural features that change and grow.
Whether professionally designed or do-it-yourself, adults are the chief architects of these areas, responding to the interests and actions of children. However, with nature as a playmate, children become the ultimate arbiters of the design and use of these areas. In addition to the universal elements listed above, the following practices relate to managed outdoor spaces in nature-based programs.
1. Landscape features promote connections to nature and support growth in all developmental domains.
2. Outdoor areas are large enough to support a variety of uses of the space. 3. Outdoor areas are designed for comfort and ease of use.

Wild Outdoor Spaces

In addition to managed outdoor spaces, nature-based programs should also offer access to more “wild” or less-managed, natural outdoor spaces, where nature is the chief architect. Some refer to these areas as the nature that is “beyond the fence” of the more regularly used and more managed outdoor spaces. The size and degree of “wildness” of the spaces will vary, and the location of these spaces can be literally just beyond the fence, adjacent to or near the managed space, or farther away and require transportation to reach.
For most programs, these spaces represent a field trip away from the school, even if the wild space is adjacent to the school, because it takes the children off of the school grounds. (Typically, the school grounds that are licensed include the indoor spaces and the managed outdoor spaces or fenced play areas.) The frequency with which children visit wild spaces varies by program. For some programs, wild spaces are the school’s only environment.
Visiting wild outdoor spaces with young children brings a unique set of safety considerations, which are detailed in the “Safety” chapter. The following practices help provide meaningful access to wild outdoor spaces for young children.
1. Teachers consider the affordances that wild spaces may offer for play and learning in selecting sites to visit.
2. Wild spaces are selected and used in ways that maintain the ecological integrity of the site.
3. Access to wild spaces is offered as frequently as possible.
4. Children are offered access to a diversity of local ecosystems.
5. Wild spaces may require trails or other features that allow children to access and explore the area safely and with minimal damage to the ecosystem.

Indoor Environments

As noted in the “Universal Elements” section above, indoor environments in nature preschools reflect as much of the local natural environment as possible while providing developmentally appropriate spaces for children. Most nature preschools include indoor spaces for children, and for most schools, these spaces,
like the managed outdoor spaces, are governed by licensing guidelines. The following are additional practices, beyond those mandated by licensing requirements, for providing high-quality indoor environments in nature-based programs.
1. Architectural decisions promote children’s connections to nature.
2. Classrooms are arranged and decorated in ways that promote nature and the role of the child in the curriculum.
3. Classroom materials encourage and support exploration of the natural world.