Raising a Generation of Nurturers: Social/Emotional Development in Outdoor Classrooms

by Nature Explore Program, Communications Staff

Updated 11/14/18

This is the fourth 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.

Our fast-paced, technology-laden society limits children’s opportunities to engage in the kinds of unstructured interactive play that have traditionally paved the way for their social development. Happily, possibilities for social and emotional development abound when children have the chance to experience care and empathy for the natural world. Nature-rich outdoor classrooms filled with loose parts and living things can provide ample opportunities for children to develop their creativity, empathy, productivity and humanity.

When gathering educators’ stories for “Growing with Nature,” Dimensions staff identified four broad categories of social and emotional skill development: Positive Sense of Self; Capacity for Caregiving; Feelings of Cooperation and Community; and, a Sense of Wonder. Here is a tiny sampling of our favorite stories…

Good for Everyone

“When we observed children in our newly added Nature Explore Classroom, we noticed that infants were more involved in touching, exploring and using other sensory activities. They were more observant of their surroundings and stayed awake longer. Those who tended to cry frequently indoors were calmer when they were outdoors and this calming effect lasted when they came back inside. Older infants were more alert and observant and spent more time investigating novel things together. The three-year-olds were able to sustain their involvement in activities for longer periods of time and interacted more with one another as they talked about the interesting things they found. On days when they were outdoors in the Nature Explore Classroom, the teacher noted that the children were more relaxed and took great naps!”

Joanne Osterland, The Family Place Child Development Center, Dallas, TX

A Beautiful Sight

“Our outdoor space is a great setting for one young girl in our program to practice her caretaking skills. It’s especially important for her because she doesn’t have a mom at home. She’ll gather bark for food and she’ll gather greenery, sticks and twigs for silverware and dishes. She’ll tell the children, ‘Now sit down. Open your mouth. Time to eat.’ As she’s pretending to feed them, it’s a beautiful sight, because I know we’re doing our job to nurture her and help her grow.”

–LaTisha Whitfield, Five Towns Early Learning Center, Inwood, NY

Freedom and Cooperation

“The older children in the learning center (grades K-2) have engaged in quite a bit of role-playing activities. The freedom they have in the larger outdoor space has had a positive effect on their behavior. Often, if the children are not getting along indoors, the teacher may take them outside to the Nature Explore Classroom. It is evident that they become more cooperative with one another, more nurturing as they take care of the plants they have planted, and happier as they dig in the sand. It’s not something they often get a chance to do.”

–Joanne OsterlandThe Family Place Child Development Center, Dallas, TX

A Sacred Space

“Every time I take my students to our outdoor classroom it is a rich experience unlike any other during the school day. We exit the school building and breath in the fresh air. There is a sense of freedom that rushes through us. The moment we enter the O.C., as we endearingly call it, we all stop and gasp, taking in deep breaths, as if for the first time. It is always breathtakingly beautiful to enter the nature space, as if we have entered a sacred space…. As I observe my students in the O.C., I remember how boundless I felt and still feel in nature. I want them to experience that as purely and unrestricted as possible. After attending Nature Explore educator workshops, I am up for the challenge!”

–Stephanie Carlson-Pruch, Gomez Heritage Elementary School, Omaha, NE

Identifying with nature and nurturing living things are everyday experiences in Nature Explore Classrooms. For many more inspiring stories—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards—“Growing with Nature” is available here.

Nature Explore Featured Products