Research Summary

Supporting school readiness naturally: Exploring executive function growth in nature preschools

Children attending nature preschool showed growth in executive function skills beyond what would be expected in typically developing children

The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education
2020

This study explored the influence of nature preschools on executive function skills, defined as “attention-regulation skills that allow conscious planning and the ability to work towards goals.” Such skills are considered to be a foundation for learning and, thus, a critical component of school readiness.

Six preschools in Minnesota participated in the study – four were nature preschools; two were not. The pedagogical approach used by all six preschools reflected a child-centered, play-based philosophy emphasizing holistic development across the domains. Children in the nature preschools spent the majority of their time engaged in outdoor nature play in a combination of natural settings, regardless of weather conditions. There was a total of 78 study participants from these four nature preschools. Children in the non-nature preschools spent the majority of their time indoors in free or loosely guided play. Their outdoor time – usually one to two hours -- was based on weather conditions and occurred in a maintained outdoor space with playground equipment. There was a total of 44 study participants in the two non-nature programs. All six preschools shared a similar geographic location, a similar tuition structure, and a population with similar demographic characteristics.

All of the participating children completed an individually administered executive function assessment (Minnesota Executive Function Scale) as a pre-test in September 2017 and as a post-test in April of the same school year. The MEFS—shown to be a reliable and valid measurement tool -- can be used with children as young as two and takes about four minutes to administer. The instrument produces a total score for executive function skills, rather than distinct scores for the domains of cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory.

Results suggest significant executive function skill growth among both the nature and non-nature preschool participants. To determine if this executive function growth differed from what would be expected from typical, cognitive maturation, assessment scores of the nature preschool participants were compared with published data on average executive function scores for 14,143 typically developing children. This data showed that the average increase in executive function skills over a seven-month period for children at a similar age is about four to five points. Children participating in this study had an increase in executive function skills of about 10 points.

These results show that nature and non-nature preschoolers grew in executive function skills beyond what would be expected from typically developing children. It might be assumed that this higher level of growth is related to the higher socio-economic status among study participants. Yet, at pre-test, the study participants were only slightly higher (2 points) than what would be expected at that time. At post-test, they were 7 points higher. “This makes it less likely for socio-economic differences to be the sole or primary factor explaining the growth observed in this study.” The significant growth may be due to preschool participation and the number of hours spent in child-initiated play. These findings add support to the growing literature on the benefits of nature preschools, including benefits relating to school readiness.

Citation
Zamzow, J., & Ernst, J.. (2020). Supporting school readiness naturally: Exploring executive function growth in nature preschools. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education , 7(2), 6-16.