The Changing Landscape of Nature-Based Education in Minnesota

In his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe a constellation of physical and mental health problems in children and adults that are exacerbated by spending too little time in nature. The Natural Learning Initiative notes that spending time outdoors promotes creativity and problem solving, improves academic performance, reduces attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms, encourages physical activity, reduces stress, and improves social relations and self-discipline. Research from Harvard University and the University of Minnesota provide further evidence of nature’s healing power; spending time in nature reduces feelings of anxiety, anger, depression, and stress, and can even lower your blood pressure and cortisol levels.

Research shows that spending time outdoors in nature improves kids physical and mental health and improves their academic performance.

During the late 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s, wealthy families and philanthropic foundations in the Twin Cities area recognized the importance of connecting children with nature and began to establish nature centers in the rapidly developing suburbs. The first to open was Warner Nature Center in May Township, where the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation launched programming in 1965. The center was later sold to the Lee and Rose Warner Foundation (now Manitou Fund) in 1970 and continued operating through a contract with the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Dodge Nature Center was established in 1967 and offers school-age programming, as well as a nature preschool. Photo courtesy of Dodge Nature Center.

The following years saw the rise of Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center in Mendota Heights-West St. Paul (1967), Belwin Conservancy in Afton (1970), and Carpenter Nature Center in Denmark Township (1981). In later decades, cities and counties established half a dozen additional nature centers in other parts of the metro as well.

Dodge Nature Center made waves in 2000, when it opened one of the first nature preschools in the United States. At Dodge Nature Preschool, children spend time outdoors every day, even in snow and rain, and are encouraged to use their imaginations and creativity. Instructors at the preschool are trained in environmental education, as well as early childhood development and learning.

Kids at the Dodge Nature Preschool spend their days outdoors, exploring the surrounding woods and wetlands. Photo courtesy of Dodge Nature Center.

Other nature-based preschools in the east metro include the Children’s Farm School in West Lakeland, Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Lake, and Children’s Country Day School in Mendota Heights.

Over the past five years, two local nature centers have closed (Maplewood and Warner), while two others have purchased additional land and are expanding their programming. Dodge Nature Center purchased 130 acres of land in Cottage Grove from the Wilder Foundation in 2013, and is now offering programming at this new Shepard Farm location. Carpenter Nature Center purchased 300-acres of prairie and woods along the St. Croix River south of Hudson, Wisconsin, and held a grand opening for its Wisconsin campus this summer.

The Minnesota campus of Carpenter Nature Center is located on the St. Croix River, just north of Hastings. Carpenter recently opened a second campus in Wisconsin as well.

In addition, some local elementary schools are pursuing a more immersive education model where kids spend much of their day outdoors, instead of just visiting nature centers during field trips.

When River Grove: A Marine Area Community School opened in 2017, it was originally intended to operate out of the former Marine Elementary building. The decision to lease land and buildings in the Wilder Forest proved to be a happy accident, however, and created unique opportunities for project-based learning. The school now attracts students from around the region, and many families have moved to Marine on St. Croix, May Township, and surrounding communities specifically to send their children to River Grove.

In May 2022, students at River Grove Elementary worked with the Zephyr Theater to put on a performance of the musical Shrek outdoors in the forest.

The kids at River Grove spend 50% of their time outdoors, where nature acts as a catalyst to inspire learning about science, math, history, reading, and art. Though this public charter school may soon be forced to vacate the Wilder Forest campus, it recently received a five-year contract renewal from the Minnesota Guild and plans to continue offering project-based, outdoor learning at a similar location.

Charlie Hong shows off a fort that he and “20 friends” have built at River Grove during their recess time.

 In southern Washington County, SoWashCo Schools has been implementing a campus greening program in partnership with South Washington Watershed District since 2017. Through this program, the school district is re-wilding the school campuses at Cottage Grove, Crestview, Lake, Grey Cloud, Middleton, Nuevas Fronteras, and Valley Crossing by replacing non-active use turf with prairies, woodlands, and outdoor classroom spaces. Students at these schools help to plant trees, spread seeds, and tend to bucktorn-eating goats. In addition, the watershed district contracts with Carpenter Nature Center to provide environmental education programming through on-site programming and field trips to the nature center.

At Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove, children and volunteers are working with SoWashCo Schools and South Washington Watershed District to rehab a school forest and create new outdoor classrooms. Photo from Great River Greening volunteer Lawrence Cosslett.

To learn more about nature-based education, visit the Children & Nature Network at or the Minnesota Association of Environmental Education at