Nature-based education has been practiced for over 100 years in early childhood education. The natural environment can provide ample opportunities and resources to engage young children in critical thinking and problem solving. It can help children develop the power to observe, investigate using their senses, and conduct experiments. Teachers can strongly influence children's interaction with nature and play a large role in how children learn in nature if they incorporate nature into their teaching.
The authors introduced “nature trail activities” appropriate for pre-K through third grade students to pre-service early childhood teachers. The teachers attended a five-week nature-based education course that included lectures, seminars, workshops, and outdoor experimental learning. In the latter, teachers were asked to create nature trails focused on science and mathematics with the goal of promoting inquiry-based learning and supporting connections with nature. This activity was intended to familiarize teachers with using nature in their teaching and developing the teachers' creativity by making use of resources found in nature.
The five nature trails were aligned with learning objectives from state and federal educational standards (e.g., Maine's Early Learning and Development Standards, Common Core Math Standards). The topics covered included: finding shapes and patterns, finding insects, using ultra-violet beads, sitting and journaling, and building a fairy house shelter. Each activity provided learning objectives, materials, questions the teachers could ask the children, and observation and discussion time.
Learning and playing in nature have numerous benefits for children and it is important to introduce them to nature-based learning at a young age, which requires their teachers to be comfortable and confident in using nature in their teaching. The mathematics and science activities covered in the nature trails are intended to provide a fun way for children to use their observation and reasoning skills in nature. Initially, the teachers found it challenging to create the trails given their lack of experience working in nature. However, when provided with guidance and time to practice, teachers were able implement new content and methods which will benefit their future students.