March 10, 2016

By Laura Seger
Early Childhood Programs Coordinator
Director, Saint Louis Zoo Preschool

It is no secret that we all spend much less time outdoors than previous generations did. Research shows an 18 to 25 percent drop in nature-related activities over the last 20 years.

The average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. That leaves limited time for exploring nature, and the unstructured play in nature, that is particularly important for young children.

Fortunately the answer is right outside our doors. Research tells us that increased time spent in nature reduces Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms, obesity, depression and stress, and increases creativity, collaboration and conflict resolution abilities, just to name a few.

A 2015 study by the research team of Cheryl Charles and the pioneer in the field, Richard Louv, looked at essential skills, including the ability to reason, plan, remember, use self-control and solve problems. The development of these, known collectively as executive function skills, creates a foundation that nurtures life-long well-being. The research team found that exposure to nature plays a critical and positive role in the development of these skills, and fosters executive function throughout a child's development phases.

Founded in 2014, the Saint Louis Zoo preschool has always placed nature at the heart of its programs. We take full advantage of the Zoo's 90-acre campus and the beautiful 1,300-acre park surrounding it. Clearly, this setting offers opportunities to study an amazingly diverse group of animals. Our preschool students do everything from practicing their observation skills with the prairie dogs to writing poetry inspired by paddlefish.

Our students also quickly learn that we are all scientists and begin to explore and investigate everything around them. Fifty percent or more of their time is spent exploring outside. In addition, our 4- and 5-year-old class enjoys Forest Fridays each week. On these days they meet in different locations throughout the park. One day they might be at a creek, the next in a forest and then another day might be spent in a prairie. On each of these days, the children spend the entire class exploring each area. Our goals for those days are to help students discover a sense of awe and wonder in the natural world. We work to increase their confidence about their role in that world. Students follow their natural curiosity, and along the way, learn teamwork, risk assessment and more.

Outdoor explorations are not just about science. In fact, nature-based instruction incorporates important elements from all of the early childhood domains and from each area of Missouri's Early Learning Standards. Math instruction involves comparing and contrasting, sequencing and finding patterns. Children build their vocabularies through literacy journaling and engage in pretend play to better understand the power of language. Outdoor exploration also advances social and emotional development by increasing a child's confidence and helping a child observe limits and engage in cooperative play.

In addition, our project-based approach to learning focuses on child-directed play. Both outdoors and indoors, students have ample time to learn and explore through play. Our open flow schedule gives children the freedom to explore things more deeply, rather than within regimented 30-minute blocks.

Play is the work of young children, and through it, they master their most important developmental tasks. Through nature-based education, we lay the foundation for lifelong learners, thinkers and stewards of the environment.

Category: Conservation
Tag: preschool