The Rise of Nature-Based Education

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. – John Lubbock

When Dodge Nature Center opened its Nature Preschool in 2000, it made waves with a unique setting that brought children outdoors every day, even in snow and rain, to explore the woods, wetlands, and farm at the nature center. The children were encouraged to use their imaginations and be creative, and the instructors came armed with education and experience in early childhood development and learning. Since then, several other Twin Cities area preschools have followed in Dodge’s footsteps, creating outdoor classrooms and incorporating nature-based education into their daily routines. More recently, there are signs that nature-based education may be growing beyond the half-day preschool model with the new River Grove Elementary opening at Wilder Forest in May Township and Stillwater resident Luann Deloach becoming the first at-home daycare provider in Minnesota to be certified as a “Nature Explore” classroom.

A forest awaits outside the kindergarten classroom at River Grove Elementary in May Twp.

In his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” as a way to describe the problems facing children in many modern families whose lives have become too busy for unstructured play time outdoors, sit-down family meals, and physical activity. Louv noted that a number of childhood problems seem to be on the rise as a result, including obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Nature-based schools and child care centers are one strategy for changing that trend.

According to the Natural Learning Initiative, based out of North Carolina State University, spending time outdoors in nature supports creativity and problem solving, improves academic performance, reduces attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms, increases physical activity, reduces stress, and improves social relations and self-discipline.

River Grove Elementary is a new public charter school for children in kindergarten through 6th grade that just open this fall. Nestled deep in the woods, among ferns and moss-covered pines, the school’s classrooms are spread out within a cluster of small buildings. In addition to a unique outdoor setting, River Grove uses a teacher-powered model, which provides the teachers with ample freedom to design their curriculum and lessons, and extra time is built into the day for recess and outdoor exploration.

A group of boys organizes a game outside at Grove Elementary.

“The teachers tell me that spending time outdoors gives the kids more energy and helps them to make connections with what they are learning in the classroom,” says River Grove administrator Drew Goodson. “For example, Mr. Cauley, the 5th grade teacher, uses an inverted classroom approach where the kids might go outside and collect bugs to bring back to the classroom instead of learning about insects from a text book and then going on a field trip. All of the teachers are finding creative ways to make use of our setting to teach everything from math to science and even art.”

Luann Deloach learned about the Nature Explore certification program after attending an early childhood development training at the Forest Lake Family Center. Nature Explore is a collaborative program of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation that certifies schools, child care centers, and community parks that create well-designed outdoor spaces and commit to staff development and family involvement. “These spaces inspire hands-on activity, creativity, play and plenty of time exploring the natural world,” says Heather Fox, director of communications and outreach for the Nature Explore program.

After attending the training in Forest Lake, Deloach decide that the Nature Explore program fit well with her own experience and philosophy of giving children ample time to play outside in a semi-structured environment and learn through hands-on experience. “I enjoy watching the children explore the world around them, learning to trust their bodies, finding out what they can and can’t do yet.” She says. With help from the Learning with Nature Idea Book, published by the Nature Explore program, she made small additions to her yard to enhance the learning environment and spur the kids’ creativity. “I came up with names for the play areas with the help of the children. We have the ‘Grow Area,’ ‘Messy Area,’ ‘Construction Zone,’ and many more.”

Luann DeLoach was recently certified as the first at-home Nature Explore classroom in Minnesota.

There are currently more than 390 Nature Explore certified classrooms across the nation, including 17 in Minnesota. In addition to Dodge Nature Center, several other preschools in the east metro area also use a nature-based learning approach, including the Children’s Farm School in West Lakeland, My Nature Preschool at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Lake, Children’s Country Day School in Mendota Heights, and the outdoor classroom at the Forest Lake Family Center.

According to staff at Nature Explore, research consistently shows that children who participate in nature-based education exhibit enhanced concentration, develop creativity and problem solving techniques, manage stress in healthy ways, and develop skills across the spectrum of academic and creative learning. From the kids’ perspectives, spending time in nature just makes learning more fun. “The kids will tell you that they just played all day,” laughs Goodson, “but the reality is that they had fun learning.”


Learn more about River Grove Elementary at

Contact Luann Deloach at 651-439-0268 or

Find research, tools, and resources to help connect children with nature at