Book Review: “Growing With Nature”

Children’s learning and social skills are enhanced as they learn and play in well-designed, nature-rich, outdoor classrooms.

Much has been said about the problems of children’s disconnection from nature, and its consequences. New terms have been invented “nature deficit disorder” and “biophobia” – the fear or aversion of nature.

Children engage in creative play less and less.  The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that American children spend roughly six hours per day plugged in electronically.  Time outdoors has declined dramatically. “Free-range” time in nature has virtually disappeared.

Sedentary indoor lives are among the causes of the doubling in 20 years of seriously overweight American children between the ages of 6 and 11.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that teenage obesity tripled in the last 20 years.

Fortunately, educators and caregivers are beginning to create the spaces and provide the experiences that again make nurturing time in nature part of the daily lives of children where they now spend their days in schools and child care centers, neighborhood parks and nature centers, even arboretums and libraries and museums.

The successes of some of these pioneering efforts are told in the book “Growing With Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms,” published by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

The nonprofit organizations collaborate in the Nature Explore program, and “Growing With Nature” documents the transformative effects on children who play and learn in Certified Nature Explore Classrooms. The stories in “Growing With Nature” are in the voices of the educators who use these thoughtfully planned natural outdoor classrooms with children each day, and they reflect their enthusiasm for the learning they are seeing taking place.

“We tell parents if their children come home clean, they didn’t have a good day,” writes the head of an early childhood center in Los Angeles’ public school district.

Creation of Nature Explore Classrooms is often initiated for educational reasons. Each Nature Explore Classroom is unique, but their configurations are based on more than a decade of research by the Dimensions Foundation to embody a whole-child approach:  Children’s explorations in these intentionally designed, nature-rich spaces support language and literacy, science, social / emotional development, mathematics, body competence, creative arts, and visual / spatial learning.

Nature Explore’s companion book, “Learning With Nature Idea Book:  Creating Nurturing Outdoor Spaces for Children,” outlines the design principles that make Nature Explore Classrooms effective learning environments for children.

“Growing With Nature” reflects the child-centered, nature-supported learning taking place in all realms:  Children learn to count with acorns and pine cones.  They make the shapes of letters with sticks as they learn to write.  They mimic the sounds and rhythms of nature on outdoor marimbas.  They draw trees and birds and flowers in nature art areas.  They learn to work together to build and create.

Research suggests that exposure to nature can reduce the symptoms of attention disorder (ADD) and related developmental challenges.  A “Growing With Nature” story describes how a child diagnosed with autism was able to engage in his first two-sided conversation with a classmate while engaged in play in a Nature Explore Classroom, an indicator of the accelerated development in well-designed, nature-rich spaces of many children with autism spectrum disorders.

Other themes are weaved throughout the book as well:  A joy for learning, a sense of wonder, and children learning to see themselves as protectors of nature and her miraculous creatures.

Through it all, children learn to nurture.  To free a bird stuck in a fence, to gently hold a lady bug or praying mantis on a finger, to move a little frog to the water puddle, to plant and water seedling tomatoes, to mulch and protect a sapling tree.

Children are learning to nurture their health and their families as well.  Nature Explore Classrooms are helping children learn to grow vegetables, and they’re sometimes bringing home carrots, green beans, and tomatoes to families whose only taste of vegetables was once fast-food French fries.

The “Growing With Nature” stories offer dozens of practical tips and insights for supporting children’s exploration and learning and growth in nature… invaluable ideas for parents and grandparents, as well as teachers, who want to help children grow into curious, confident, nurturing adults.

“Growing With Nature:  Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms” is available through the Web site,

Woodrow Nelson is vice president of the nonprofit Arbor Day Foundation.

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