Research Summary

Early childhood educators’ use of natural outdoor settings as learning environments: an exploratory study of beliefs, practices, and barriers

Barriers to Using Natural Outdoor Spaces in Early Childhood Education

Environmental Education Research

Natural outdoor spaces can range from wilderness preserves to unmanicured spaces, such as an overgrown lawn or a small patch of nature under a stand of trees. The importance of bringing children into these spaces has been well established as a means of improving resiliency as well as social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Yet, these settings are still greatly underutilized in early childhood education. Stringent accreditation regulations and an increased focus on learning standards may explain some of the barriers, but the authors of this study asked whether the beliefs of early childhood educators regarding the value of outdoor education is also playing a role. This study explored the beliefs and practices of early-childhood educators to understand the predictors and barriers of using natural outdoor settings.

The study focused on 46 educators in early childhood programs (programs for children ages 3–4); these programs included preschools, childcare centers, and Head Start initiatives. The study took place in northern Minnesota in an area known for an abundance of green space, natural resources, and outdoor recreation. Participant educators answered a self-administered questionnaire regarding their beliefs about natural outdoor settings as educational resources. This included questions on the importance of natural outdoor settings for children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Educators were also asked about the importance of natural outdoor settings for developing children’s appreciation for the environment. Educators reflected on their personal relationship with nature (nature relatedness) and reported the amount of time that they usually spent in nature, their concern toward nature, and their environmental behaviors. Finally, educators were asked how often they used natural outdoor settings while teaching. Educators who indicated natural outdoor settings as difficult to use wrote free responses regarding what they saw as the primary barrier to teaching outside in nature.

The findings demonstrated most educators agreed that outdoor experiences in natural settings are important for children to develop an appreciation for the environment (mean = 4.43, SD = 1.28, where 1 = strong disagreement and 5 = strong agreement). Educators generally agreed that outdoor experiences are important for young children’s social, cognitive, and physical development; even so, they rated the perceived difficulty of using these spaces as somewhere in between difficult and easy (M = 3.00, SD = 1.41). On average, educators indicated they use natural outdoor spaces for teaching only about once a month. The educators reported using maintained outdoor settings, such as mowed lawns, playgrounds, or landscaped parks, “often” or “once a week.”

The results indicated that educators perceived the primary barrier to using natural outdoor settings to be a lack of walking access and/or the need for public transportation to these sites. Other barriers included lack of time, winter weather, safety concerns, and lack of extra supervision for the students. Given the abundance of green space and natural environments where the study took place, these results surprised the researchers. Another surprising result was that educators did not report the trend of an increased focus on academics and decreased time allowed for free play in early childhood education as barriers.

In light of educator responses, the researchers developed several recommendations. They recommended that professional development efforts should focus on reducing barriers by considering teachers’ beliefs and practices concurrently. It is clear, for example, that teachers value the use of outdoor natural spaces with their students, but need support to put these values into practice. Professional development efforts can focus on teaching educators how to use natural outdoor settings in the winter, how to prepare children for outdoor experiences in a timely fashion, and how to minimize potential safety issues. Informal sharing among early childhood educators and support from environmental educators can provide help in recognizing nearby natural areas or in creating small patches of nature on school property. Discrepancies between educators’ beliefs and practices are well-reported and researched, highlighting the importance in providing educators with time to develop and implement best practices.

The Bottom Line

Natural outdoor settings, ranging from wilderness preserves to unmanicured yards, are prime locations for early childhood development. Early childhood educators generally understand this importance, but encounter practical barriers to taking their students outside, particularly in areas beyond the schoolyard or playground. In particular, transportation, winter weather, and safety concerns are primary barriers. Professional development could focus on minimizing these barriers while concurrently supporting educators with finding or creating nearby natural spaces. Educators’ experience with using a range of natural spaces can provide formal and informal training and support informal training to those with less experience in this realm.