Children's understanding of the natural world develops through direct, positive experiences with nature, supported by adult guidance

McClain, C., & Vandermaas-Peeler, M. (2016). Outdoor explorations with preschoolers: An observational study of young children's developing relationship with the natural world. International Journal Of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4.

This study examined preschool children's developing relationships with the natural world over the period of a year. It focused specifically on three aspects of that relationship: emergent stewardship and appreciation of nature, discoveries and reasoning about the natural world, and awareness of self in relation to the environment. This study also examined children's shared experiences with peers and teachers during their outdoor explorations.

An environmentally-focused preschool collaborated with two university-affiliated researchers in conducting this study. One researcher, who was familiar with the school and the children, filmed eleven preschool children and their teacher during weekly explorations by a river in a local state park. The researcher conducted group interviews with the children after each river trip to collect data on the children's experiences and thoughts about the river. The researchers also conducted interviews with the teachers at the beginning and end of the project to collect information about their views of the importance and impact of nature experiences for children.

The data indicated that while outdoors children showed awareness of themselves in relation to the environment, generated complex scientific theories around their discoveries, demonstrated an appreciation of nature, and engaged in environmental stewardship. Children's awareness of themselves in relation to the environment was demonstrated by the children connecting what they were doing or seeing with their awareness of what was happening. At times, awareness was paired with stewardship, as when a child decided not to move some flowers due to a concern about possibly hurting them. Findings indicated that teacher guidance played an important role in promoting children's individual and collaborative explorations and for encouraging scientific thinking. The teachers encouraged scientific reasoning through questioning rather than through giving answers. Teacher guidance was also important in fostering an appreciation of nature and stewardship behaviors.

The design of this longitudinal study is consistent with recommendations from other researchers calling for an examination of how children's responses to nature move from a simple to an increasingly complex relationship. The results of this study are also consistent with other research indicating that children's understanding and appreciation of the natural world develop through direct, positive experiences with nature, supported by adult guidance and encouragement.

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