Different methods used to evaluate a nature education program highlight growth in cognitive, social, environmental, and physical domains

Volpe, M. ., Derr, V. ., & Kim, S. . (2019). “And it made me feel good inside”: Initial evidence and future methods for evaluating nature school effectiveness. Children, Youth and Environments, 29, 5-26. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.29.2.0005

A defining characteristic of most nature education programs is the way in which they engage children in experiential learning in a natural setting. While learning about the natural world is often the primary goal of such programs, other goals tend to focus on learning across developmental domains. The Ramblin' Adventure Club (Ramblin') in Santa Cruz County, California is one such program. A concern addressed in this research was the program's lack of systematic methods for evaluating its effectiveness. This research, then, aimed to identify the benefits of Ramblin' and to pilot evaluation methods that would be feasible for them to carry out over time.

Ramblin' is an outdoor after school program implemented at different natural locations in the local community. The program serves kindergarten through fifth grade students and is offered after school every day of the school week. The program was designed to help students develop a sense of appreciation for and awareness of the local ecology by connecting them with the outdoors and teaching science through imaginative play and exploration. For this study, methods used to evaluate the program included participant observation, student and parent questionnaires, child interviews, and teacher diaries. Students completed questionnaires within the first two weeks of the program and again at mid-term. Items on the questionnaire assessed eight outcome areas: confidence, communication, social skills, concentration, physical abilities, knowledge and understanding, new perspective taking, and ripple effects to families. Responses from 72 students were analyzed for this study. The parent questionnaire – completed by 23 parents – included items relating to children's abilities across four domains: social, physical, cognitive, and environmental. Twelve children participated in group interviews (six children per group) focusing on what they liked and did not like about the Ramlin' Adventure Club. Teacher diaries, completed on a daily basis, included a brief assessment of the success of the day's activities and reflections on what contributed to the success or lack of success. A total of 142 entries were analyzed.

Responses on the children's questionnaires showed statistically significant changes in each of the eight areas, with changes being positive in all areas except for ripple effects. These positive outcomes were supported by interviews with the children. The lack of growth in ripple effect may be due to the fact that scores were already high at the beginning of the program, leaving little room for additional growth. Teachers rated approximately 90% of the 142 daily activities as “very successful” or “somewhat successful.” The most successful lessons included activities that engaged multiple developmental domains. Positive outcomes most frequently attributed to the program by the parents were an increased level of self-confidence and increased respect for the environment.

Though not a controlled study and results cannot be interpreted as causal, all assessment methods identified social development as one of the most significant benefits of the Ramblin' nature program. Parent responses indicated that children's growth in the cognitive, social, environmental, and physical domains tended to increase with the number of years participating in the program. This research supports the potential value of nature programs in promoting connectedness to nature and child development across developmental domains. This research also provides guidance regarding methods which can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of nature education programs.

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