Nature-based early childhood education (ECE) programs integrate nature into their philosophy, curriculum, and physical environment. Such programs are sometimes referred to as forest pre-schools, forest kindergartens, and nature-based pre-schools. Children attending nature-based ECE programs typically spend the majority of their day outdoors in a nature-rich environment.
This systematic review of the literature focused on links between nature-based ECE and social, emotional, and cognitive development outcomes. Thirty-six studies were included in the review -- 26 using quantitative research methods, 9 qualitative methods, and 1 mixed-methods. The majority of the studies were conducted in the United States, Australia, and Canada. While the total sample size of included studies was 3383, sample sizes of individual studies tended to be small. Only three studies had a sample size greater than 200. All included studies were assessed for quality or trustworthiness of the process and reported outcomes. Only two studies were rated as moderate quality; the remaining as weak, primarily because they were cross-sectional studies. From a preliminary analysis of the studies, researchers identified four different categories of nature exposure: nature-based ECE, ECE natural playgrounds, natural elements within ECE, and garden-based interventions. They also grouped outcomes into three domains: social and emotional development, cognitive development, and nature connectedness.
Findings from the quantitative studies showed positive links between nature-based ECE and improved social skills and social and emotional development. Findings from the qualitative studies suggested that these improvements may have been achieved through three possible pathways: more diversified play (including risky play and sociodramatic play), increased creativity and imagination, and prosocial interactions with peers and teachers. Specific areas of growth linked to nature-based ECE included self-regulation, social skills, play interaction, nature relatedness (or biophilia) and awareness of nature. While some studies reported positive links between nature-based ECE and children's attention, attachment, initiative, environmentally responsible behavior, and play disruption and disconnection, other studies investigating these areas did not find similar results. Some quantitative studies reported higher self-regulation (ability to understand and manage behavior) in children who attend nature-based ECE than children in other ECE programs. Three of the 26 quantitative studies reported fewer behavior problems in children who attended traditional ECE compared to nature-based ECE. Qualitative studies indicate that natural settings provide more affordances (opportunities for active engagement) than traditional settings and that children prefer the natural settings over traditional settings. The authors offer several conceptual models that could potentially explain observed findings. One such pathway, which is the common factor across all outcomes reported in this systematic review, is play. Exposure to nature may afford more opportunities for engaging in diverse types of play which support social interaction and connection and the practice of self-regulation.
This review provides some evidence of positive links between nature-based ECE and children's growth in multiple areas of social, emotional, and cognitive development. More robust research is needed to add strength to the current findings and to gain a better understanding of the dose and quality of nature needed to achieve desired child development outcomes.