Many approaches to early childhood education don’t place a major importance on learning outdoors, but nature is an important learning environment for children. “The benefits of connecting children with nature are evident in every area of child development. Nature helps children grow intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically,” writes Ruth Wilson, PhD, in her book Learning Is in Bloom: Cultivating Outdoor Explorations. Make it your goal to take a little time each day to help children connect with the rhythm of nature, especially when they are young. “It’s important for children to connect with their own place, to become familiar with the unique sights, sounds, smells, and cycles of their immediate environment,” states Wilson. Below are three of the suggestions she provides for integrating early childhood environmental education in your classroom.

1. Focus on Experiencing Versus Teaching

Remember that allowing children to explore and play when they’re outdoors instead of requiring them to concentrate on a lesson you’re trying to teach will have better results. Children learn from observing, listening, feeling, pouring, digging, and experimenting, and helping them have hands-on experiences with nature has far more teaching power than prepared lessons have.

2. Provide Child-Friendly Tools

Providing child-friendly tools encourages closer observation and hands-on manipulation of natural materials during outdoor learning. Magnifying glasses are a great example of an observation tool, but there are many other tools that can encourage children to look more closely: hand-held, nonbreakable mirrors; drop cloths to catch things that fall from trees and bushes; insect-observation containers; clipboards and paper for recording observations; field binoculars; plant and animal identification cards; flashlights; specimen boxes; pretend or real cameras; and empty picture frames. With the backing and glass removed, picture frames can be used to mark off an inspection area on the ground. Children can also hold the frame up to frame a picture of something in nature that they can later describe or draw. Tools that encourage hands-on manipulation of natural materials include digging tools, rakes, buckets, sifters, sorting trays, plastic cups, and child-size wheelbarrows and wagons.

3. Keep It Simple and Keep It Local

One of the best suggestions Ruth Wilson shares in her book is to keep it simple and keep it local. You don’t need a half-acre garden to help children learn that much of what we eat comes from plants. A few plants grown along a fence can give children plenty of opportunities to plant, harvest, and taste, and one tree can be almost as educational as an entire forest when teaching children about the seasons or having them observe how living things are dependent upon trees for shelter. Instead of depending on field trips for nature-related experiences, try getting children engaged with nature right outside your classroom or school door.

For more information about the importance of outdoor play in early years, be sure to read Learning Is in Bloom: Cultivating Outdoor Explorations. You’ll also find tips and resources for outdoor learning in the Outdoor Spaces category of our Insights and Inspirations section.

Enter Our Outdoor Classroom Photo Contest!

Celebrate the arrival of fall in your outdoor classroom this week, and then submit a photo of your students’ outdoor explorations for the chance to win a set of Gonge Riverstones. The contest ends at 11:59 PM ET on Sunday, September 25, 2016, and one winner will be chosen on Monday, September 26, 2016. We can’t wait to see how you and your students celebrate the arrival of fall!