Research Summary

Developing a nature-based four-year-old kindergarten program: OAK Learning Center at Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, WI (USA)

Developers of a nature-based public preschool describe its development and perceptions of success in academic, physical, social and emotional development and connectedness to nature realms

International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education

The OAK (Outdoor Adventures for Kids) Learning Center at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, Wisconsin is a nature-based preschool program developed and implemented by four community groups: a wildlife sanctuary, city, public school district, and university. While the program is designed to enhance the students’ academic, physical, social, and emotional development, it also promotes understanding and appreciation of the natural world. The curriculum, while framed around “purposeful play” and forest kindergarten philosophies, also addresses the kindergarten readiness requirements of the public school district.  A licensed early childhood teacher and an experienced naturalist serve as co-teachers for the program. Since the program started five years ago, 20 children have been attending a three-hour morning session and another 20 attending an afternoon session. Each year, there's been a waiting list of students interested in attending the program. Plans are being developed to double the size of the program in the near future. Interested parents are also asking the school district to develop a nature-based program for K-8 students.

OAK is a public preschool program, where children attend tuition free. The program is housed at a wildlife sanctuary which is also a city park. Funds -- which come from the state educational reimbursement plan -- are split between the school district and the city. The school district furnishes the classroom, provides professional development opportunities, and assumes responsibility for evaluation of the teaching staff. The city hires the instructional staff and provides educational materials. The university – one of the partners for this project -- provides environmental education expertise and field placements for early childhood student teachers and interns. Children spend most of the day outdoors “immersed in the natural world.” Examples of their “in-nature” activities include “digging in the earth, looking for bugs, balancing on logs, jumping in puddles, singing songs, building fires, catching fish, planting a garden, observing wildlife on a nature walk, and rolling in the mud.”

Student assessments, teacher observations, and parent feedback indicate that the program is effective in helping students meet or exceed the academic expectations of kindergarten and subsequent grades. Feedback also indicates that the program helps students develop physically, socially, and emotionally. Additionally, parents report that their children have an increased understanding and appreciation of the natural world, and that they monitor the family’s pro-environmental behaviors, such as recycling.  Further feedback from stakeholders indicates that OAK is successful from multiple perspectives.

The results of this study are consistent with other research documenting the effectiveness of nature-based preschools. This study adds to the literature by illustrating how a publicly-funded nature-based program can address the academic and developmental needs of young children in an economically-strained neighborhood.