A Whole-Child Approach to Learning in Nature

This is the first in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.


“When children were engaged in authentic play in the Nature Explore Classroom they were developing important skills—skills that are foundational for early learning and will be important in helping children successfully navigate the world. However, one of the most significant findings of this research is that when children were engaged in authentic play in the Nature Explore Classroom, they were developing skills in a variety of domains simultaneously. This is what we refer to as whole-child learning.” –Miller, Tichota, and White, Dimensions Foundation researchers

Today’s children are growing up in a frenetic world. Often it feels like the last thing we have time to do is give our children—and ourselves—a chance to take a deep breath and enjoy the natural world.

Teaching with nature provides an antidote to our sometimes frantic approach to life, and a nature-filled outdoor classroom can become a much needed safe haven for our plugged-in, tuned-in children. In an edible garden or a messy materials area—away from televisions, video games, smart phones and computers—the world can slow down. Children can be children and discoveries unfold at a pace that’s just right for everyone.

Once children and their teachers are outdoors, another amazing thing happens: educators can readily access strategies for teaching to the whole child. Children learn and develop best when they gain skills holistically, rather than in discrete subject areas or domains. When allowed to engage in personally meaningful exploration of the world around them, children are able to develop skills and understanding of many areas at the same time. This is why learning with nature is such a powerful motivator for skill development.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of education in outdoor classrooms is the enthusiasm children demonstrate for learning. The natural world inspires children to see the intrigue and purpose of true learning so they will want to explore, experiment, and through these activities develop new skills and interests. Without a doubt, this type of empowered learning is the goal of every dedicated teacher. Bringing more connections to the natural world into children’s daily lives can help make this goal an attainable reality.

Throughout this series of blog posts, we will explore how nature-based learning can foster whole-child development in a gamut of areas: language and literacy, science, social and emotional development, mathematics, body competence, creative arts and visual/spatial learning. We will share stories from educators in Nature Explore classrooms across the country that will, we hope, inspire you— whether you’re an educator, administrator, parent or grandparent. Thank you for joining us on this journey.

For stories and activities from Nature Explore classrooms around the country—as well as insights designed to inspire educators and families—“Growing with Nature” is available here