Being outside under the sky is different from being inside under a roof. The experiences that can happen in either place are not necessarily better than the other place, but they are different. We know that children can learn about distant places and the living organisms in those places by using non-fiction books and videos, including television programs. I would not trade the week of my father’s bedtime hour read-alouds of The Borrowers Afield (Mary Norton 1955) for a week spent camping. I would not trade even one day spent in bed reading Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White 1952) for one day on a farm. But since I grew up in a house at the edge of “The Valley” of a small creek, I didn’t have to make those choices—I had both experiences of learning from books and learning through experiences in nature. I think all children should have outdoor experiences in natural settings in addition to looking at fiction and non-fiction books (or reading or having them read aloud) that are engaging, have rich vocabulary and accurately present the topic. The National Science Teachers Association “NSTA Recommends” is a good source of non-fiction book titles that are accurate and engaging.
Using teaching about the life cycle of an organism as an example, teachers can use the many fiction and non-fiction books, ideas for craft projects, and series cards to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly. We can read The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle 1969), have children paint and cut and glue to illustrate the egg-larvae- pupa-to-adult-egg lifecycle, and ask them to show us which life stage card comes first. These activities do not provide the same “ah-ha” moments as actually observing living butterflies. Details such as the roundness of a butterfly’s eye, or the two-part wings pop out when seen firsthand. When a school plants some plant sources for nectar for adult butterflies and “nice green leaves” for caterpillars, children can observe a butterfly drinking nectar from a flower, or find an egg or caterpillar on a leaf. They can make first hand observations, gathering evidence for understanding that animals depend on plants for food. When children observe an adult butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, they are gathering evidence from their own observations for understanding that a butterfly changes form during its life cycle. When teachers ask children for the evidence for their understanding, they will have first hand experiences and observations to relate. Early childhood educators in all programs can support children’s understanding of their observations by voicing their own thoughts aloud while making observations, and by supporting discussion and productive arguments about the meaning of those observations.
Weekly walking fieldtrips around the block expose children in built-up areas to a larger slice of nature than what they experience in the schoolyard. Can you go a bit farther once a season, to a near-by natural area? Longer walks can be great exercise and the open space found at many natural locations allow more vigorous exploration on the wider vistas. See the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s list, “Resources for Environments That Engage and Inspire Young Learners,” to find articles and other print sources for learning how others find ways to teach children in natural settings. The July 2009 Young Children article “We Need a Way to Get to the Other Side!: Exploring the Possibilities for Learning in Natural Spaces,” presents many reasons for outdoor exploration and some tips on how to implement it. The authors’ ability to work with small groups of five children is a strength of their program. If your program can not accommodate such groupings, consider other ways to bring children in contact with nature. Authors of the Young Children article, Carolyn Galizio, Julia Stoll, and Pamela Hutchins, reported that the outdoor play supported positive changes in children’s behavior and learning. They also said, “The freedom children experience in a natural environment heightens their feelings of joy, passion, fun, peace, excitement, wonder, and fear. These feelings make times spent outdoors in these spaces valuable for children and adults. As teachers this is foremost in our minds.”
The HighScope Curriculum Newsletter, Extensions (v25 no. 2), addresses nature education in preschool with tips for teachers, resources and support for inclusion of all children.
I’ve noticed that children find a way to engage with natural materials wherever they are. On one playground with just one tiny garden corner, children eagerly point out the bee in the cucumber flower and the struggling pumpkin vine. They dig in the wood mulch to create pits and scoop it up to move and mound it up. They still use the “climbing structure” with steps, platform and ladder but not for as long as they engage w
ith the mulch. What natural materials can you add to playscapes made of only human-created materials? Tubs of water, a large pot for a few plants, and a box of sand come to mind. Going out the gate to view a neighboring tree and the ants that crawl on it, or walking to a nearby more-or-less natural area to run through the grass or investigate the ant
hills in the dirt will expand children’s world just a little more.