Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice: Teaching

A nature-based early childhood curriculum has dual goals of promoting whole-child development and environmental literacy, with nature as the organizing concept of the curriculum.
Teaching practices in a nature-based preschool reflect established best practices in early childhood and environmental education, with an emphasis on play-based learning. In a nature preschool, teachers create a caring, stimulating, and safe environment in which every child is regarded as a valuable, unique, and capable contributor to the learning community. Teachers provide daily opportunities for extensive outdoor play and learning, during which teachers and children are co-learners. This kind of supportive environment creates conditions where children feel confident enough to take cognitive, physical, emotional, or other types of risks as they mature across all of the developmental domains and build a foundation for environmental literacy.

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


Goals of the Curriculum

Nature preschools have dual goals of fostering both whole-child development and environmental literacy based on established best practices of early childhood education and environmental education. As a result, high-quality nature preschools focus on children’s physical, social-emotional, spiritual, and cognitive development, while helping children develop a lifelong connection to the natural world. The following practices help programs advance early childhood development and environmental literacy.
1. The curriculum is guided by best practices in early childhood education and environmental education.
2. Teachers have different areas of expertise, and meet regularly to plan as a team.
3. Teaching practices and curriculum are based on current research and theory.

Role of Nature in the Curriculum

Recognizing the benefits of nature for promoting whole-child development and environmental literacy, nature is at the heart of the curriculum in a nature- based preschool. Learning opportunities are place- based, seasonal, and authentic experiences that emerge from children’s interactions and evolving relationship with the natural world. The following practices help programs put nature at the heart of the curriculum.
1. Teachers familiarize children with the plants, animals, and natural features and phenomena in their surroundings.
2. Teachers support and encourage children’s play and investigations with natural materials.
3. Classroom activities cross boundaries between indoor and outdoor learning environments, and between different types of outdoor environments.
4. Teachers promote learning from season to season, supporting children’s understanding of patterns and changes through the seasons.
5. Teachers model care and concern for nature and the environment.
6. Human communities are considered part of, and dependent upon, the natural
7. The entire learning community engages in environmentally friendly practices.

Focus on Outdoor Learning

Most of the developmental benefits of interacting with nature come from spending time in nature. As a result, a hallmark of a nature-based preschool program is significant time spent playing and learning outdoors. Some schools operate exclusively outdoors.
Teaching children in the outdoors requires attention to safety and risk management on the part of both teachers and administrators. Practices related to safety and risk management in nature preschools are detailed in the “Safety” chapter. The practices described below relate to teaching practices, excluding safety practices, in the outdoors.
1. Outdoor learning is a central feature of the program, with frequent, regular opportunities for outdoor play and learning in natural spaces.
2. Teachers and children are dressed appropriately for the weather, and teachers demonstrate positive attitudes about experiencing various weather conditions.
3. Teachers develop and maintain teaching materials designed or adapted for outdoor use.

Emergent, Play-Based Curriculum

Nature preschools promote emergent and experiential learning, providing child-initiated, play- based experiences in the natural world that lead to individualized learning. As a result, direct instruction in a nature-based program is limited. The following practices relate to the development of a child-focused curriculum in a nature-based setting.
1. Children’s interests and abilities direct learning opportunities and assessment.
2. Teachers emphasize opportunities for individualized learning across learning environments.
3. Children’s inquiry is used to encourage higher-order thinking, and the inquiry process is allowed to continue for as long as children’s interest remains.
4. Teachers provide a daily routine that allows for flexibility.

Community of Capable Learners

In a nature preschool, all children are seen as capable members of the learning community who have valuable and unique contributions and are worthy of respect. Not only is this mindset important for fostering children’s healthy development, but it is also critical for building children’s long-term confidence in their ability to make changes in their world (also known as their “sense of agency”). The following practices help build a confident community based on mutual respect in a nature-based program.
1. Teachers are co-learners with children.
2. Teachers encourage and support children’s developing abilities to take care of their own needs and safety.
3. Teachers support and encourage children to be change agents in the learning community and the broader community.
4. Teachers provide opportunities for child-child interactions to promote collaboration and conflict resolution.
5. Teachers provide an environment that values diversity and sustains children’s cultural identities.
6. Teachers modify the curriculum and environment to individualize learning opportunities and scaffold learning for all children.

Documentation and Assessment

Ongoing documentation and assessment support children’s learning, while providing teachers with information for planning to support children’s individual growth. Most standard practices for documenting and assessing young children’s growth and development apply just as well in a nature-based program as they would in a more traditional school. But there a few differences.
In nature-based programs, teaching and learning often happens through play, requiring teachers to become astute observers in order to document and authentically assess children’s learning while they are engaged in play, usually outdoors. Nature-based programs also are interested in the development of additional skills and dispositions related to the early development of environmental literacy that other programs may not be looking for as they assess children’s development. And finally, nature-based programs emphasize the use of assessment and documentation to build relationships with parents and caregivers, and may use documentation to demonstrate the benefits of the nature-based approach. The following are some of the practices related to documentation and assessment that are particularly relevant to nature-based programs.
1. Children’s progress in both standard early childhood developmental domains and domains that relate to the development of environmental literacy are included in assessment measures.
2. Teachers document and assess children’s learning through observation and artifacts so as not to interfere with children’s learning experiences.
3. Teachers engage children in documenting their own individual and group learning so children can process and reflect on their own learning over time.
4. Teachers use documentation and assessment to inform the emergent curriculum.
5. Teachers regularly share documentation and assessments with parents and caregivers.