Make Nature the New Normal: Renewing the Case for Nature-Based Education

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4 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Image Credit: "A cute little girl at the Baga Beach!" by nehasingh7 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I feel the sun on my neck as I squint at the 20 kindergarteners walking, skipping, hopping behind me, eager to reach our final destination: Rockaway Beach, New York. It’s a field trip for this class, and as an environmental educator for the nonprofit they’re visiting—I’m their guide for the day.

A small hand reaches up and tugs on my shirt, a little boy with big brown eyes and an oversized orange T-shirt looks up at me, “Ms. Sydney, how much longer?”

I smile, “Just a bit further. Look can you see the blue water up ahead?” He grins rushing back to tell his friends, “We’re almost there!”

We reach the end of the sidewalk, and step onto a bleached wooden boardwalk. Eyes scan hungrily over the landscape—soft pillowing sand leading to a sparkling sea, waves crashing into foam, a few beachgoers tucked underneath bright umbrellas. I quickly go over the ground rules (no swimming, stay in the designated area, and leave everything where you found it) and set the kids loose to explore and discover.  

Photo credit: Francesca Green

Two girls dip their toes in the water, shrieking with delight as the waves chase them. A boy plops on the ground, grabbing handfuls of sand and running it through his fingers. Another girl finds a strand of rockweed seaweed and delicately rolls the bulbous pockets between her fingers.  

The same boy with the orange T-shirt approaches, a look of pure joy on his face: “Look what I found!” He opens his palm to show me a Quahog clam shell, smooth, gray, and white, with hints of dark purply blues in the crevices, like it was stained by the sea. 

Photo credit: Sydney Randall

“Wow, Incredible discovery! Did you know that someone used to live in that shell? A clam!” His eyes grow wide as he gapes down at his treasure, in disbelief at his luck.

Climbing trees, scraping knees, meeting frogs in creeks—we need this. Kids need this. Kids need to explore, discover, and get muddy. And with COVID-19, bringing social isolation, family stress, and remote learning—kids need nature more than ever. 

According to a recent article in the New York Times, after a year of pandemic life, kids are struggling. Struggling with isolation, depression, and anxiety. Nature can’t solve everything but it can help.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Nature-based schooling and outdoor classrooms have emerged as one of the solutions for social-distanced schooling. A recent feature by National Geographic shows that COVID-19 sparked an increase in nature-based and outdoor schooling in the U.S.—from 250 participating schools in 2017, to 600 in 2020. Anecdotal accounts from teachers who made the switch cite more engaged students, less aggressive behaviors, and more consistent academic achievement across the board. This doesn’t have to be temporary. COVID-19 has the potential to be a catalyst for a new type of greener educational system.

Nature-based schools were around long before COVID-19. Some of the first schools intentionally designed with outdoor education as a focus started in Scandinavia in the 1950s, reaching the US twenty years later. But it wasn’t until 2005, when Richard Louv published the book Last Child in the Woodsthat the idea became much more widespread. In his book, Louv coined a now famous concept: “Nature Deficit Disorder”—the argument that modern day childhood has become overly-standardized, structured, and steeped with technology—leading to stressed kids and disconnected adults. The solution? Get outside.

Photo credit: "SPMN0020" by pcopros (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

That is exactly what contemporary nature-based schools do. Although they vary in their overall structure and the amount of time spent outside, these schools’ common denominator is that educators adapt to the weather, season, situation, and child’s interests to guide their learning. Inspecting a beetle, collecting rocks from a river, imaginary games, and risky play (like climbing a tree unsupervised or learning how to whittle) are all encouraged, even in pre-school. And it doesn’t have to be a forest, beach, or national park to “count” as a green space. A patch of backyard, a community garden, or a local park can be a hub of exploration and excitement in urban spaces. 

There is no doubt that access to green spaces provides countless benefits, including improved mental health, reduced symptoms of ADHD, and even improved vision. Risky play has also been shown to increase independence, build motor skills, and lead to better problem solving and resilience. But beyond this, being in nature helps young people develop a sense of empathy and compassion for the world around us. Children who spend time outside become more ecologically minded adults. In a world careening toward climate catastrophe, the Earth needs all the helpers it can get. 

Despite all of these benefits, nature-based schools can be inaccessible for many low-income families and students of color. Nature-based programs are largely private. Plus, some programs can’t provide the expensive high-tech winter and rain gear needed for the adventuring students. Perhaps the most pressing issue is that many states don’t have a set of outdoor-based school standards, and therefore most outdoor programs are unlicensed. This means that there are no state subsidies provided to low-income students to get them in the door—or out to the forest. But this is slowly changing. Washington developed a state-licensed outdoor preschool program in 2017, and Oregon followed closely behind.

Many of these programs focus just on preschool and kindergarten, but why stop there? Playing outside, exploring nature, and being able to safely test boundaries shouldn’t be a privilege, and it doesn’t have an age limit. 

Public schools are one of the top three land holders in the United States. We need to re-think how to utilize those spaces. Instead of concrete and pavement parking lots, think gardens, fields, park spaces: green schoolyards

Photo credit: "FEE Learning about Forests" by feeinternational (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As we left the beach that day, sand stuck to knees, elbows, and between toes, the excited chatter on the walk back floated up to me, “Did you see that dead crab? When are we coming back here? Look I still have a rock in my pocket—don’t tell! That was SO fun!” 

The boy with the orange T-shirt walked alongside his friends. Breaking my own rule, I let him keep the Quahog shell. Glancing back, I spotted a knowing smile on his face as he gripped his treasure by his side, the smooth white glimmer between his fingers. 

Every child should have the opportunity to discover the joys of a tide pool, rain puddle, pine cone, or Quahog clam shell. Before we rush back to “normal,” let’s consider the possibility of an accessible, greener childhood for everyone. 

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  • Sydney Randall

    Sydney Randall is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Marine Conservation and Policy at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Stony Brook, New York. She is passionate about environmental education, marine conservation, science communication, and combining conservation science with artistic expression.
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