Friday, July 24, 2009

Green Hearts and Nature Play

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things."
-- Plato

Green Hearts is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to restoring and strengthening the bonds between children and nature.

We believe that frequent, unstructured childhood play in natural settings is a crucial stage in the development of life-long conservation values -- and thus helps lead to adult conservation behaviors.

This kind of "nature play" is now an endangered part of American childhood. Green Hearts' mission is to help bring it back.

Nature Play

Green Hearts' work is based on the proven power of nature play to spark life-long conservation values.

What Is Nature Play?

What do you remember about your childhood nature play? Millions of Americans fondly recall playing outdoors in natural settings, doing things like:

* Building tree houses;
* Catching frogs and fireflies;
* Splashing in creeks;
* Daydreaming in a special hiding place; or
* Digging holes “to China.”

These activities are all nature play: unstructured childhood play in “wild” areas, whether it’s the vacant lot next door, the local neighborhood park, or the “back forty” of your farm.

At its very best, nature play isn’t scheduled, planned, or led by adults, nor is it confined by grown-ups’ rules. Instead, it’s open-ended, free-time exploration and recreation, without close adult supervision. For many of us, this sort of nature play virtually defined our childhoods.

Why Is Nature Play Important?

There is a growing body of research data about the multiple positive impacts of nature play on children’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. Richard Louv has done a great job of reviewing these benefits in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

However, for Green Hearts'mission the most valuable impact of nature play is on conservation. Multiple studies in several countries, over more than 25 years, have found that frequent, unstructured childhood play in natural spaces is the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values and conservation behaviors.

Thus, for the task of building greater future societal support for conservation, frequent nature play is more powerful than education, participation in youth groups, or even the influence of parents and other mentors. Nature play is strong stuff!

The Challenges to Nature Play

Unfortunately, many factors are converging to make nature play increasingly rare in American childhoods, including:

* Less children’s access to unregulated green spaces where they can freely play;
* Growing parental fears of letting children play outdoors without close supervision;
* The mushrooming allure and availability of plugged-in play;
* Longer school days and increasing amounts of homework; and
* The trend to over-schedule children in structured, adult-led activities.

The unhappy result is that most American children no longer enjoy regular nature play. In fact, one study found that our children now spend an average of just 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play.

The Environmental Impacts of Vanishing Nature Play

Nature play has been found to be the most common influence on the development of adult conservation values. Now it is fading away. Without the lasting impacts of nature play, what will guide future generations into cherishing the natural world?

Many people believe that increased amounts of formal environmental education might lead to more wise conservation behavior in our society. Unfortunately, research shows that the lasting conservation impacts of school-based environmental education are limited, at best. In fact, broader research finds that learning is not a prime determinant of most human behavior. Instead, many other factors drive our behavior, with our emotions and immediate needs often being the most powerful ones.

As a conservation organization, Green Hearts’ ultimate aim is to help make conservation behaviors a dominant value in American culture. To achieve this, we believe that we must find ways to put nature back into children’s hearts, not just into their brains. Nature play is the key to this challenge.

Restoring Nature Play

Nature play can be brought back! First we must expand public understanding of the importance of nature play — an effort that is now underway across the United States. Then we must develop and implement structured (and hence replicable) ways of bring unstructured nature play back to childhood.

Green Hearts is certain that this can be done, using methods such as:

* New approaches to neighborhood design and home landscaping;
* The creation of schoolyard nature play areas;
* Development of nature play areas within community parks; and
* The expansion of nature preschools, where young children enjoy daily play and explorations in green spaces.

Green Hearts was founded to help lead the way in this work. To learn more about how we are doing this, please review the "Services” portion of this website.

Nature Preschools

Green Hearts' long-term goal is to develop and operate a multi-state network of nature preschools.

What Is a Nature Preschool?

A nature preschool is a fully-licensed child care operation that uses a natural area as a regular focus of its student activities.

Typically, nature preschool classes go outside every day to enjoy loosely-structured explorations and play in natural settings. In this core component of a nature preschool, the teachers’ roles are to gently facilitate the process, to ensure safety, and to provide guidance and information as needed. The children's own interests and discoveries guide these daily explorations, rather than any predetermined activity outlines or academic goals and objectives. The excursions normally last 45 to 90 minutes each day, and are done in any weather conditions that are not actually dangerous.

Children and parents understand that these outdoor activities will often get the children wet, dirty, hot, and/or cold. Good outdoor clothes are a must, and a change of clothes is always kept on hand for each child. The underlying motto is simple: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!

Most nature preschools also include daily free-play time in a structured playground which is usually more naturalistic in design than traditional play areas. To comply with most states' laws, these playgrounds are enclosed with natural barriers or fencing.

Children playing there are supervised, but they are enjoying individual nature play rather than the group explorations that each class does daily.

Nature preschools always offer indoor activities, too — typically including stories, music, construction play, art, dramatic play, snack, etc. In this regard they are very similar to other types of preschools, though nature preschools usually incorporate natural themes and materials throughout their indoor activities.


Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child” -- i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.

To do this most effectively, the children's activities draw from their own interests, discoveries, and observations -- with the preschools' natural settings providing a treasure trove of opportunities and adventure. General themes may be followed, such as seasonal changes outside, or growing a vegetable garden -- but each day's activities remain flexible, to allow for the ever-changing delights and surprises of nature.

This child-centered approach is a very good fit with current understandings of how young children best grow and develop, despite American society’s apparent obsession with moving formal academic instruction into earlier and earlier ages. The whole child approach is also excellent preparation for school readiness.

Operational Structure

Nature preschools operate on an annual tuition basis and have daily, weekly, and yearly schedules similar to that of most preschools. Parents can typically choose either morning or afternoon sessions, meeting from two to five days per week. The children are usually ages three, four, or five at enrollment; it is common to require a child to be three before entering and to be fully toilet trained.

Some preschools use mixed-age classes, while others separate their students by age. There are thoughtful reasons and beliefs behind both of these approaches.

Class sizes (maximum) usually range from 12 to 18 students, with either two or three teachers per classroom. Most states’ licensing rules include maximum student-to-

teacher ratios, and these ratios are sometimes different for indoor activities than they are for outdoor excursions. Even with a smaller nature preschool classroom, two teachers are considered essential — and a third adult can be very handy. Occasionally this “third adult” role is filled by a college intern or a long-term volunteer, rather than by another paid staff member.


American nature preschools have permanent facilities with at least one dedicated classroom plus appropriately equipped restrooms. The classroom(s) can be used for other purposes when the preschool is not in session, but for some audiences that will require the movement of a lot of specialized furniture
and equipment.

State licensing usually dictates specific guidelines for minimum classroom size (measured by square feet per child), number and location of restrooms, number of exits, fire suppression requirements, size of playground, etc.

Benefits of Nature Preschools

From the perspective of a conservation organization, the core rationale for nature preschools is that they provide their students with a very close approximation of the kind of frequent, unstructured, outdoor childhood play that research has identified as being the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values. They are thus a strong fit with the conservation and education missions of most nature centers and similar organizations.

Since they attend for at least two days per week over at least one full school year, preschool students are assured of far more direct contact time with the outdoors than students receive in nearly any other model of environmental education. In fact, each child enrolled in a nature preschool will usually enjoy hundreds of hours exploring and playing in natural settings during the course of his or her preschool experience.

This approach is more likely to generate life-changing experiences than are shorter, infrequent, cognitive-focused EE programs. In addition, nature preschools' loosely-structured, daily outdoor explorations allow the time and opportunity for real discovery and play, as compared to traditional K-12 environmental education lessons that are scheduled, regulated, and confined by schools’ curriculum objectives.

The nature preschool model also provides exceptional support for the overall healthy growth and development of children. The daily explorations build valuable skills such as observation, experimentation, and sorting, while allowing for both individual experiences and group sharing. The children's outdoor discoveries also provide great subjects for all manner of artistic and verbal expression, and the daily walks help to establish early habits of physical fitness.

Perhaps most of all, nature preschool students truly learn how to learn –- developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one's turn, and following simple directions.

Where Are They?

The most prominent nature preschools in the United States are affiliated with community nature centers. There are less than 20 of these, and they are scattered across the country, in places like Milwaukee (WI), Saint Paul (MN), Kalamazoo (MI), New Canaan (CT), and Lincoln (NE).

There are undoubtedly many other less-visible, private preschools that also follow similar philosophies, using nature-based play as the central component of their curriculum, but most of these are not known beyond their immediate communities. However, as understanding of the effectiveness and success of nature preschools grow, their numbers are gradually increasing.

Green Hearts' long-term goal is to develop and operate its own multi-state network of nature preschools, embedded within small "children's nature centers" that stress play-based nature experiences in all their activities.