The Story of the Sand Pile (1886)

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

Maggie in the sand

The Dimensions Educational Research Foundation continuously yields valuable information about the many powerful benefits outdoor play holds for children.  Its research unambiguously demonstrates that young children develop academic and social skills during self-motivated free play; learning that happens spontaneously outdoors.  Dimensions Foundation is at the forefront of researching and articulating these benefits.  G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), a pioneer of academic psychology in the US, would have been delighted by Dimensions’ work. Just look how his observations of children playing in sand mirror finding still true to this day.

In 1886, the humble sandbox was introduced to Boston neighborhoods, as a means of giving city children safe places to play.  Called “sand gardens,” these play-spaces became the inspiration for our country’s earliest playgrounds.

In 1888, a professional couple from Cambridge, Mass., dumped a large pile of sand in the back yard of their nearby summer home.  Their sons, three and five, together with friends, then embarked on a journey of outdoor learning that sustained them for years.

Fortunately for us, G. Stanley Hall was a friend of the family. Deeply impressed by the story of the children’s activities and the quality of their learning, Hall wrote “The Story of a Sand-Pile.”   He describes how, over many years, the children develop an entire society in their back yard.  With their friends, they learn concrete skills such as woodworking and modeling.  They learn about farm animals and their care, about business and commerce.  They learn about forming an equitable social structure, with town governance and laws.  Most importantly, they learn about themselves and each other. (Download a PDF copy of the original book, here.)

Their backyard community became a powerful presence in the boys’ lives.  “Most of the playtime of nearly every day of the boys most interested, for several summers, has been devoted to its very diversified direct and indirect interests.” 1  Creating a town and its society in what had started as a sand pile was the children’s idea.  “The parents wisely refrained from suggestions, and left the hands and fancy of the boys to educate each other under the tuition of the mysterious play-instinct.” 2  And because the children took ownership over their learning, they showed care and respect for the space.  “It seems remarkable that during all the years of its existence no boy has been mean enough to injure or plunder it at night, or angry enough to demolish anything of importance.” 3

In Hall’s day, outdoor play was probably the norm in suburban and rural areas.  What about this specific group of children and their play would captivate one of the great academic minds of the time?

Although Hall’s words sound stilted to the modern ear, he clearly believed that the children, Hall clearly believed—as we do today— that the children, through the development of their play-town, had been engaging in mature problem-solving, learning to observe closely, and developing self-control: and doing, all in a spirit of fun and adventure.  He notes that,  “On the whole, the “sand-pile” has, in the opinion of the parents, been of about as much yearly educational value to the boys as the eight months of school.” 4  Hall agrees.

The Story of a Sand-Pile concludes with an astonishing observation.  After seeing the intensity of the children’s commitment to their outdoor play, and the high skill-levels they’ve developed across many academic and social domains, Hall concludes finds that this experience couldn’t have happened indoors.  He observed the children’s self-motivated explorations organically probing into many interconnected subject areas.  He reasons that this learning is deeper than learning that happens when skills are broken down into disconnected subjects in school.

At Dimensions Foundation Nature Explore, we would say that children’s’ experiences in our carefully designed Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms extends and deepens learning that happens indoors.  Because outdoor learning takes place in an environment of self-initiated explorations of natural materials, to the children, it’s simply “play.”  The powerful learning dynamics that so intrigued G. Stanley Hall can be seen daily in any Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

We believe that G. Stanley Hall would have been very pleased by your efforts to connect children with nature.  Onward to the past!

*Discover for yourself the Nature Explore program’s vast collection of Outdoor Classroom Natural Products online by area of interest or request a free Resource Guide to learn more.

Get those children moving!

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This is the sixth 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.

DSC03409KVL Dimensions Henry body bridge

The importance of movement thinking should not be underestimated. If the six-year-old child does not have fundamental control over both general and discriminative movements, he will find it difficult, if not impossible, to move his eyes across the page, look up and down from the chalkboard to his paper, hold a pencil, or compete in play with his peers… If bodily movement is well under control, children can expend minimum energy on the physical mechanics of the task and maximum energy on the thinking related solution.” –Hans Furth and Harry Wachs, “Thinking Goes to School: Piaget’s Theory in Practice”

Active running, climbing and games are often associated with recess in school and backyard play at home. These experiences are important to physical health, but are only a part of overall physical development. In Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms—with their complete mix of activities—children have opportunities for comprehensive physical development. These include chances for multi-sensory learning, appropriate risk-taking through active play, real work, healthy eating and self-calming activities, all of which are essential for physical (and emotional) development.

One outcome of children’s disconnection from nature is lack of sensory stimulation. Increased time in sterile indoor environments, use of manufactured plastic toys, and earlier use of electronics all decrease opportunities for children to use all of their senses. Many educators are wondering if the growing rise in children identified with behavioral problems and sensory-processing disorders is linked to lack of consistent time outdoors. This first story illustrates the simple-yet-powerful sensory experiences that can be found in a Nature Explore classroom.

blog 2“Snow and winter weather changed the outside experiences for the children with the new scenery and terrain. The toddlers have been able to observe how the snow feels, what it looks like and sometimes how it tastes! The children love being outside in any weather, and for many of the children at this age, snow is a new experience in temperature, texture and mobility.” –Kaysha Brady, Toddler Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs

Just as an active lifestyle is beneficial for adults, children need active play to support healthy bodies. Natural outdoor spaces full provide that kind of play for young children, and these spaces become even more vital for older children who many spend most of their school day sitting in desks.

blog 7  DSC_0159“In my advisory class this year, I had several of the athletes, the big, big boys. One day I brought them out to our Nature Explore Classroom for homeroom time and I said, “Okay. We’re just going to chill out here for a while.” Before too long they were playing leapfrog on the giant tree cookies that we had salvaged from a tree that came down on our site. All of the seventh grade boys were playing! It doesn’t matter that you’re thirteen and six foot one, or if you’re four and three feet high, they love this place and their bodies need it.” –Debbie Harris, K-8 Science Department Chair, St. Francis Episcopal Day School, Houston, Texas

When children are involved in the gardening and growing process, and understand where the food they eat comes from, healthy eating habits almost magically fall into place. Simple gardening activities engage children from planting and seeding to harvesting and cooking.

P1100734“Our experience with the school garden in the outdoor classroom has been invaluable. One of my students with autism, an extremely picky eater who would never touch fruits or vegetables, began to sample the fresh garden tomatoes, squash and other produce that he picked in the school garden.” –Tonia Liss, Special Education Teacher, Beard School, Chicago, Illinois

For overall well-being, children need changes of pace in physical activity throughout their day. Chances to quietly reflect and be calm are just as important as opportunities to be boisterous and active. Here’s an innovative approach to nap time undertaken by one early education program.

“Student teachers were skeptical when lab faculty proposed an experiment to move nap time outside when the weather was mild. They later reflected that the children were calm, and that even children who did not sleep were relaxed as they listened to the breeze move in the leaves overhead. For example, one child stated, “When we sleep outside it is better because the wind blows me to sleep.” Teachers also reported feeling more relaxed in the outdoor setting.” –Jenny Leeper Miller, Master Teacher, Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory, University of Nebraska

Whether children are running, building or snoozing, activities that improve body competence can be found around every corner in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. For many more inspiring stories that highlight physical skill development—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— read “Growing with Nature”.





Bird Team Poem

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

_MG_0287Recently I had the pleasure of meeting members of the Bird Team; students between the ages of three and five, at Dimensions Early Education Program in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Students on the Bird Team ensure that the many bird feeders in their Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, (and elsewhere around the school), are well-stocked with the right seeds.  They are also known for having shattered ice in their birdbaths, exposing the water below; and, when necessary, using hot water to melt heavy ice.  In addition to these activities, Bird Team members study, observe and document birds sighted at the feeders.

Below is a tribute to their conservation activities, written for them.

1-13-14To The Bird Team

Nebraska bird lovers-
We know what they’re thinkin’.
They’re telling their bird friends To fly over Lincoln.

A preschool in Lincoln, Nebraska, is where,
The Bird Team is helping
Their friends in the air.


This winter’s been freezing.
Who would help birds- I ask you?
The Bird Team will do it!
They’ve come to the rescue.

They unfreeze the birdbaths
For Robins, and Sparrows,
And Cardinals, and Chickadees.
These kids are their heroes.

BirdInside their classrooms
They practice with seeds,
Filling the feeders,
Taking care of birds’ needs.

Outdoor feeders are filled-up
In the coldest of weather,
As The Bird Team shows love to
Their friends of the feather.

Bird 2Then all joining hands,
“Go- Bird Team!,” they shout.
Kids study birds indoors, and
Take care of them out.

And after birds swoop down
From high in the air,
They eat and they bathe, and
They know that you care.

When these Lincoln birds sing
I know just what they mean.
In bird-talk they’re singing,
“We Love You, Bird Team!”

Nature + Exploration = Boundless Mathematics Learning

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This is the fifth 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.

DSC_0076Natural outdoor classrooms provide engaging opportunities for children to develop mathematical ideas through frequent hands-on investigations. The variety of loose parts encourage children to find and create patterns, explore the concepts of numbers and simple equations, and overall to “mathematize” their thinking. With support from intentional and informed adults, children’s “mathematized” thinking can blossom from the earliest months of life through the elementary school years.

DSC_0126Many anecdotes shared by educators from certified Nature Explore Classrooms reference the mathematical skills children had demonstrated, such as counting, measuring and estimating. While these skills are certainly important, it’s also important to realize how essential it is for children to develop intuitive and authentic understandings of mathematical processes. These more complex ways of thinking include using logical reasoning to solve problems, communicating mathematical ideas, and connecting mathematical concepts to everyday life.

Here are a handful of stories that illustrate beautifully the development of these skills. At times the accounts may seem deceptively simple, but if you look deeply you’ll see that valuable, foundational mathematical thinking is developing.

Dimensions BOOK photos 046 Leaves 2Leaves

“I saw Derek playing with a pile of leaves and asked him about them. He explained that he had collected them from underneath a nearby tree. I asked about his plan for the leaves and he told me they were just for looking at, but then described their size: “There are some big ones—like this one. It’s bigger than those, it’s the biggest.” Next, he pointed to others, noting their relative size and moving them into position from smallest to largest. When I asked him to tell me about what he’d done, he counted 27 leaves in a line. I told him I noticed that not only had he counted 27 leaves, but also pointed out to him that he had lined them up in order by their size.” —Holly Murdoch, Preschool Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs

The child-initiated task in this story—assembling leaves—was “mathematized” by the scaffolding of the teacher, who helped shape her student’s experience and reinforce his thinking.

The Teeter-Totter

“George and Xavier, four years old, learned about cooperation, balance and coordination as they played on a natural teeter-totter they made in the Messy Materials area. Throughout the process of creating this structure, children also measured the different materials, made a poster noting their length, and learned the word circumference.” —Elena Otto, Assistant Director, Kids and Company Childcare, Carson, CA

Teachers provided the time needed to create this elaborate structure, and they helped scaffold children’s mathematical thinking through the experience. All of this math learning took place while the children were also doing the physical labor of lifting and moving the logs and using the social skills necessary to collaborate successfully.


 Selling Gourds

“In the fall, kindergarteners were using many areas of the outdoor classroom in unstructured exploration when I heard students “selling” gourds and mini pumpkins…. Soon students were flocking to the “store” to buy, and imaginary money came out of pockets. There was even haggling over prices, with certain items going for a premium based on the size, shape, color and weight of the gourds. One vendor confided in me that he bought the gourd for fifty cents but was selling it for a dollar. The secret mark-ups of the selling group were the source of much delight for them.” —Julia Gilreath, Elementary Art Specialist Gomez Heritage Elementary School, Omaha, NE

Children engage in grocery store play indoors and out. This story is special because the variety of materials outdoors seemed to spur more excited dramatic play, creative pricing and flexible thinking than is often seen indoors. Math is integrated throughout this activity.

“Mathematized” thinking abounds in Nature Explore Classrooms. Find many more inspiring stories that highlight mathematical skill development—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— in the Growing With Nature book.






What Begins in Nature Lasts a Lifetime: A Personal Reflection

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

DSC07669Outdoor play was the background of my childhood.  Play in our large yard in the 1950’s gave way to exploration of immense town woodlands in the ‘60’s, which morphed into mountaineering in the ‘70’s-90’s, which has slowed-down to hiking and biking these days.  For as long as I can remember, nature has been my teacher, muse and solace.

So when Nature Explore engaged me to interview wonderful people involved with their Certified Classrooms, I was thrilled, and felt a sense of homecoming.  If you’ve read some of my blogs, you’ll understand how honored I’ve felt by connecting with so many truly dedicated and inspirational people. Corinne Carr, who presents to childcare professionals throughout Kansas on the importance of nature for preschool children.  And Sandy, the grandmother inspired by the Certified Nature Explore Classroom at her job, who built a nature playscape in her own backyard for her grandchildren.  And Heather, who, after building a playscape in her back yard, went on to advocate for a Nature Explore Classroom at her church, and at her local school.  People’s lives are transformed through their relationship with Nature Explore, and I’ve been privileged to record their stories.

Recently, while writing blog posts, I’ve been thinking of my own stories in nature- far too many to record.  But more importantly, I’ve been reflecting on how my time in nature has informed who I am- from the early play in my yard, to my outdoor experiences as an adult.  What have I learned?  What would my life have been like had I not had these experiences?

The early lessons learned as an infant and toddler first lying, then moving, then playing on the lawn; are long forgotten.  But I believe that my later sure-footedness in mountaineering began as I negotiated the rocks in the stone-wall and sloping rock garden of my yard.

Ours was a lawn populated by kids, bordered by trees and teeming with squirrels, bugs, birds, worms, and neighborhood dogs (which were rarely leashed back then).  Children learn about animals and about responsibility by caring for family pets.  Yet I remember my early fascination with outdoor animals and insects, (which I either encountered or searched for), growing into a deep respect for all other life forms.

Wanting to know about what I was seeing outdoors, I asked many more questions than my parents could answer.  My questions eventually led to books that could answer them.  Early on, I became the family “reader,” and I remember books about animals, insects, birds, and (later) weather, being in the early mix.  My first career choice, during my elementary school years, was to be a scientist, to study animals.

Back then, we children (and our parents) saw the occasional bee sting and skinned knee as normal byproducts of outdoor explorations.  I learned to be more careful around bees, and that wet rocks are slippery.  More importantly, I learned that explorations in nature carried manageable risks.  Learning how to safely negotiate these risks was the basis for my far more challenging adventures in the mountains of California and New Hampshire, and in everyday life. 

Although I can’t consciously remember most of the very early learning I experienced outdoors, thanks to my association with Nature Explore, I’ve come to realize the profoundly important background those early times in nature have been to my adult life.  Learning, as a toddler, to move confidently over and around uneven surfaces in my yard was foundational to my experiences setting up a tent on 15 feet of spring snow at the crest of the Sierra Mountains. Just as my fascination with animals, insects and other life forms drove me to investigate, explore and learn about the world around me.

Back to the original questions: what lessons have I learned from my early experiences in nature, and how has my life been made different by having learned them? I guess the best answer is that much of the color and texture of my adult experience has been enriched by the foundational learning that was in or inspired by nature.  Reading, hiking, photography, fitness- all have roots in my relationship with nature.  Even a ten-year career in photography, which took me around the world many times, was handed to me based on my love of nature.  So another answer to the questions is that I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without my strong and abiding love of nature.

At Nature Explore, we’ve heard many personal stories about nature transforming lives of children and adults.  Now, we’d like to hear yours.

Do you have stories of how time spent in nature has enriched your life?  Whether your outdoor experiences began during early childhood, or developed later, we’d like to hear of them.

Please tell us your story.

Nature’s Icebox – 4 Tips for Play in a Cold Weather Outdoor Classroom

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by Heather Fox, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation



When children explore Nature Explore Classrooms every day they develop a personal understanding of the seasons. Here are four tips that encourage exploration and discovery in the outdoor classroom should your seasons include a winter wonderland.


1. Saunter like a Snowflake

Have you ever wondered how a snowflake might feel as it dances through the air? Take advantage of the winter weather, step outside and experience it. Mimic their movements and joyfully participate. Use questions to help guide children to use their whole bodies to communicate what they know and feel.

-What might you look like if you were a snowflake?

-How would you move?

winter week 0202.  Melting Mosaics

Winter landscapes hold less color than Spring or Fall. Create some color and experience the effect of melting with this activity. Combine salt and tempera paint to create a colorful melting mixture. Allow the children to paint snow or ice and explore the properties. Encourage the children to use many words to describe what they are seeing.

3. Tool Tutorial

Get out your child-sized tools and help children use them. Snow and ice create a different medium and a new challenge for children. This type of heavy work can help ground and focus. The movement also keeps them warm and healthy.

4. Illuminating Ice

Freeze natural items like seedpods or berries in containers of clear water. Pop out and string nature’s beauty form the trees in your outdoor classroom. Ask children to observe the ways in which the birds and animals react to your creations. Have them notice how the sun shines through and sketch what they see.

Let us hear form you. What types of activities work in your cold weather outdoor classroom?

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

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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…

100_7714KSH“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, Director, The Family Place Child Development Center, Dallas, TX

photo“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, Preschool Teacher, Five Towns Early Learning Center, Inwood, NY

392_074“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 Osterland, Director, The Family Place Child Development Center, Dallas, TX

DSC_0267_02“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, Elementary Art Specialist, 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

Two Three-Dimensional Families

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant


Heather and Kipper, of Lincoln, Nebraska, have three girls.  All graduated from Dimensions Early Education Programs, with its Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. They attend Sheridan Elementary School- which also has a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, thanks, in part to Heather’s advocacy.

Jennifer and Lateef, of Lincoln, also have three girls. One is a current student at Dimensions.  The other two, graduates of Dimensions, attend Prescott Elementary.  You can probably see where this is going- Prescott also has a Certified Nature Explore Classroom, and you don’t even have to guess who advocated for it.

Jennifer and Heather are passionate advocates of outdoor learning because they quickly saw is benefits for their children in the Dimensions Early Education Programs.  But working so their children could continue the experience during their elementary school years is only part of this story.

Jennifer started volunteering at Dimensions while her first child was there.  She is now on staff, handling fundraising and events.  Her children all continue spending creative time outdoors apart from school.  All are nature and research-minded, she says.  For their last family vacation, the children packed binoculars, clipboards and writing materials.  When they spotted a rafter of wild turkeys near their cabin, they carefully documented the experience in words and drawings.  Just last year they asked for new clipboards from Santa.

Heather was so moved by her first daughter’s experience at Dimensions that she and her husband constructed a Nature Explore inspired playscape in their backyard.  Built years ago, it is still actively used by all three girls.  But that wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough that her own children and their friends got the benefits of outdoor exploration.  Heather envisioned her church with an Outdoor Classroom, knowing it would draw young families and neighbors to the congregation.  That vision is now a reality.  Saint Matthews Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Nebraska now has an exquisitely designed Outdoor Classroom.  While advocating for this space at the church, Heather was also on the committee to develop one at Sheridan Elementary School.

What accounts for the extraordinary measures of devotion that Jennifer and Heather have shown?  What accounts for elementary teachers saying that children who have grown up in Nature Explore Classrooms are unusually advanced across many learning domains?  Why do more and more faith communities look to Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms to enhance what they offer?

If you are an old friend of Nature Explore you already know the answers.  If you are new to our blog, welcome, and please come back often.  Share your stories here and see how other who have advocated for Nature Explore Classroom in their school or community.

All Children are Scientists; The World is their Laboratory

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This is the third 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.

DSC01152bpOver the past few decades, outdoor settings for children have become increasingly sanitized spaces devoid of nature’s “loose parts” that invite hands-on discovery that supports science learning. As children have begun spending more time in front of screens, their understanding of the world around them is coming more from media than their own experiences; it’s not uncommon for today’s children to know more about the rainforest than about the plant and animal life in their own backyard.

Nature-based outdoor spaces in early childhood programs and elementary schools—and in places where families spend time—are once again giving children access to daily explorations in nature. These experiences provide a sensory basis for developing meaningful and foundational science understandings. In a nature classroom, children are observing, investigating, devising experiments, problem solving and learning scientific concepts long before they master scientific vocabulary.

Dimensions Foundation researchers have codified key aspects of nature-based science learning into five areas: Cause and Effect, Close Observation, Cycles and Seasons, Classification and Environmental Awareness. Here are a few examples of these concepts unfolding in Nature Explore Classrooms.

DSC04667Cause and Effect

As young children begin to experience the ability to create reactions to their own actions, they develop an understanding of cause and effect. Nature provides many free “tools” to help them on this learning journey.

Grayson, aged 2 ½, was in the Nature Explore Classroom under a tree. He was picking up different sticks and breaking them. He seemed to be listening to the sound each stick made as he snapped it in two. After a particularly loud sound, he looked up at me and said, “Watch me.” I asked him what sound it made. He said, “Loud.” He continued to break sticks into various lengths one after another. —Katie Dietz, Toddler Teachers, Dimensions Early Education Programs

DSC02024 2 Close Observation

Dimensions Foundation research consistently demonstrates that close observation skills are strengthened when children spend time in Nature Explore Classrooms. Over time, children who are able to explore the natural world regularly become comfortable seeking new information. As they ask questions, actively explore, compare what they think they know with what they are observing, and then reflect on new assumptions, they become participants in the process of developing an increasingly complex understanding of science.

Preschooler Lonnie closely observed a grasshopper in the greenhouse. No photograph or story could provide him with the same information he gathered in this hands-on way. —Jenny Leeper Miller, Master Teacher, Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory

DSC03288Cycles and Seasons

“As children observe, reflect, record and share nature’s patterns and rhythms, they are participating in a process that promotes scientific and ecological awareness, problem solving and creativity.” —From Discovering Science in Nature by D.M. Hensley

Curiosity was contagious as my students, ages six to eight, watched larvae grow into caterpillars. Once the caterpillars were hanging inside their chrysalises, the children waited with anticipation for them to emerge as butterflies…. The awe on their faces was priceless as they witnessed the first Painted Lady slowly climbing out of its chrysalis. The children spent a few days observing the butterflies in our indoor garden. They learned to describe the life cycle of a butterfly and to identify its parts…. Finally the big day arrived. It was time to release our butterflies outside in our Nature Explore Classroom. With mixed emotions, we headed to our gathering area. But as each butterfly soared into the air, the children clapped and shouted with joy! —Jean Luchini, Special Education Teacher, Beard School, Chicago

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


Just Beyond the Door

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

tree hug

The cold temperature outside can’t keep them inside.

They want to go out, and explore

the world of nature that’s beckoning the children, from

just beyond the door.



So on go the coats and the scarves and the hats,

mittens and warm sweaters, too.

Excitement is high as the children prepare

for so many things they can do.

But before they go to their classroom outdoors

there are trees to visit and love.

They hold hands with their friends, encircling trunks;

leaves dancing down from above.


Back outside the building a count’s going on

of Paw Paw leaves left on the tree.

Excited children are jumping and shouting,

“I see one, I see two, I see three.”


Soon music is made and duets then played, on

instruments of metal and wood.

Frost is searched for and found, both on stone and on ground,

by a girl in an animal hood.


A child asks the teacher, “How cold is it now?”

A trip to the thermometer she’s earned.

No lesson-plan teaching, just questions and answers;

and that’s how temperature’s learned.


Now to get a bit warm they are starting to swarm

in the Greenhouse, where so much to do

awaits them inside- food for curious minds.

They sought out the warmth- wouldn’t you?


Pumpkins, sticks, leaves and flowers are placed on the table

begging for crayon and paper.

Drawings are shared, analyzed and compared;

then saved for taking home, later.


But the biggest attraction is found in the compost-

a thing that makes some people squirm.

It breeds learning and sharing and bonding and caring.

That thing is the common earthworm.


“I’ve found one,” he says, his hands deep in dirt,

“I’ve go one on my hand,” says she.

They’re carefully holding their dear little friends,

that they bring for their teacher to see.


Children think about beings that to others are lowly,

learning what earthworms eat, how they live.

They closely observe by touching, by seeing.

And they have so much caring to give.


But soon snack-time is here, and their snacks are indoors.

At the teacher’s announcement are squirms

of children not wanting to go back inside.

“I want to stay, feed the worms!”


Let’s reflect a moment on the richness of learning,

when Mother Nature’s the teacher.

No lessons are needed to spark children’s engagement.

Curiosity’s the dominant feature,


Of their “play,” of their sharing, exploring and caring,

both of natural things, and each other.

They explore with their friends, and consult with adults,

when the teacher is everyone’s Mother.


Then tomorrow, the next day, again and again

they’ll go into nature- explore.

Whether it’s cold or there’s sun,

so much learning and fun.

Go ahead now and open that door.