This study aimed to determine if children in a traditional preschool setting and a nature-based preschool setting were equally prepared academically and social-emotionally for kindergarten. Another aim of the study was to add to the quantitative literature on nature-based preschool education using a multi-rater, longitudinal research design. Additionally, “this study aimed to better understand the relationships between learning environment and important developmental variables, including social interaction, play, behavior, enjoyment of school, and appreciation of nature.”
Two groups of preschool children – both located in the same school – participated in this study. One group of 12 children was enrolled in the school's outdoor pre-primary program (OPP). The other group of 14 children was enrolled in the school's traditional prekindergarten program (TPK). Both groups attended class five mornings per week. The OPP group met outdoors in a forest on the school grounds for 90% of the school day. While the TPK group spent most of their time in built environments, they also used the outdoor setting one morning per week and one immersion week in the spring. As both groups were located in the same school, they drew from families with similar backgrounds.
Parents and teachers of the participating children completed three different measures of the children's academic and social-emotional development: (a) the Penn Interactive Peer Play Scale (PIPPS), assessing aspects of children's peer play behaviors; (b) the Preschool and Kindergarten Behavior Scales, Second Edition (PKBS-2), assessing aspects of children's social skills and problem behaviors; and (c) a pretend play rating scale assessing children's imagination in play, use of make-believe, enjoyment of play, amount of emotion expressed in play, and use of make-believe in dramatic play. The teachers also completed a kindergarten readiness measure, assessing such readiness skills as letter number recognition, sorting and classifying, counting, rhyming, and recognizing one's name in print. The children completed two measures: Children's Attitudes Toward School (CATS); and Children's Attitudes Toward Nature (CATN). Parents and children completed their measures at the beginning and ending of the school year. Teachers completed their measures at the beginning, middle, and ending of the school year.
The overall results showed that the two groups of children ended the year with approximately equal levels of kindergarten readiness in the areas of social-emotional functioning, academic skills, and pretend play. Their attitudes towards school and nature were also approximately the same. Parents' ratings of their children over the course of the year found no significant differences between the traditional and nature-based groups. Teacher ratings, however, showed significant differences between the groups in several areas relating to play and challenging behaviors, with children in the nature-based program showing more disruptive behaviors than children in the traditional group, though still within the normal range of behaviors for preschool children.
This research provides empirical evidence that, for preschoolers, learning in an outdoor environment can be just as effective in promoting academic and social-emotional goals as learning in a more traditional environment.