Research Summary

A coordinated research agenda for nature-based learning

A diverse team of stakeholders presents a framework for research to advance the understanding and implementation of nature-based learning

Frontiers in Psychology

The Nature-Based Learning Collaborative Research Network (NBLR Network) was established in 2015 to accomplish three primary goals: (1) develop a definition and research agenda to inform the  development of the science of nature-based learning (NBL), (2) disseminate research-based information relating to NBL, and (3) conduct collaborative studies responsive to the research agenda. The University of Minnesota, the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign grounded the 23-member national network composed of academic researchers, practitioners, representatives of environmental organizations, and funders whose work related to NBL. This article presents the outcome of an initiative addressing the first primary goal of the NBLR Network – that is, defining NBL and setting a research agenda to advance research on the impact of NBL.

Developing a definition of NBL involved extensive interaction between Network members. The process resulted in the following definition. “Nature-based learning, or learning through exposure to nature and nature-based activities, occurs in natural settings and where elements of nature have been brought into built environments, such as plants, animals, and water. It encompasses the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and behaviors in realms including, but not limited to, academic achievement, personal development, and environmental stewardship. It includes learning about the natural world, but extends to engagement in any subject, skill or interest while in natural surroundings.”  NBL can occur in informal, non-formal, and formal settings and can include guided or structured group activities. NBL can also be experienced by individuals engaged in self-determined activities, as they act alone or with others.

In developing the research agenda for NBL, the expertise of the NBLR Network was supplemented with input from over 100 other stakeholders, primarily practitioners and funders.  A carefully-crafted literature review conducted by two network members identified established findings and gaps in knowledge and grounded agenda-setting. In-person and conference-call agenda-setting meetings were held by the NBLR Network team over the course of one year.

These data-informed discussions – along with the input from the other stakeholders – led to the development of a framework for research to advance the understanding and implementation of NBL. Two sets of research-related questions are outlined: one focusing on an agenda for moving an understanding of NBL forward; the other focusing on critical information for guiding practice and policy decision-making. This framework and the related priority questions address three overarching domains:  (1) learning outcomes; (2) mechanisms that explain relationships between nature and learning; and (3) how to most effectively apply research to policy and practice.

The research agenda outlined in this article is intended “to encourage more coordination and collaboration among researchers, to promote a focus on the most pertinent research questions and most robust methods in order to advance this field, and to make a case for the importance of NBL as a field for study as well as practice.”