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Exploring Nature with Young Children

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Connecting Children to Nature

A young child’s connection with nature can be as simple as sitting under a tree, listening to the chirping of crickets, or planting a bean seed. Spending time in nature has many positive benefits. Children who have opportunities to play and learn in nature are more likely to:

  • Handle challenges and problems more capably.
  • Act responsibly toward the earth and each other.
  • Be more physically active and aware of nutrition, and less likely to be obese.
  • Have a greater appreciation of the arts, music, history, and literature.
  • Choose science or a related field for careers.
  • Become better-informed and environmentally-aware adults.

Growing Up WILD helps connect children to the outdoors in a number of ways:

  • Several of the 27 activities, and over 400 experiences, involve children directly exploring nature outdoors.
  • All of the activities include a Take Me Outside section that offers specific suggestions for getting children active outdoors, with nature walks, physical games, and other activities.
  • Many of the activities’ Centers & Extensions and Home Connections sections include ideas for furthering children’s exploration outdoors.


Developmentally Appropriate Practice

A growing body of research indicates that young children learn in ways that are markedly different from older children and adults. Children in the early childhood years learn primarily through their senses and from direct experience. They develop an understanding about the world through play, exploration, and creative activities, and by watching and imitating adults and other children.

As they mature, young children undergo changes in all aspects of their development, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive (or intellectual). These changes occur in relatively predictable sequences or stages that generally lead to more complexity in things like language, social interactions, physical agility, and problem solving. Children move through these developmental stages at an individual rate depending on their age and maturity, but also based on their experiences and the social context of these experiences.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), early childhood educators can promote a child’s optimal development and learning through developmentally appropriate practice.

Growing Up WILD promotes and supports developmentally appropriate practice in a number of ways. Each activity presents a wide range of options so that children can work and learn at developmental levels that are individually appropriate. The guide also uses a variety of teaching strategies—small group, whole group, centers, individual and pair work, and teachable moments—that allow the teacher to choose those appropriate for each child and situation.

Growing Up WILD activities as a whole include both child-initiated and teacher initiated learning experiences, giving children opportunities to select among rich choices prepared by the teacher. Educators have the flexibility to modify activities to meet the needs of children’s different age levels and developmental stages. Activities also include opportunities for learning through play, particularly in the Take Me Outside and Centers & Extensions components.

Finally, all the activities interweave content areas—literacy, math, science, and the arts—and involve social, emotional, physical, language, and cognitive domains, helping to foster development and learning in all areas.

Nature Play

Children love to play, and can easily turn a twig into a toy or a mud puddle into a play area. But, play is more than just fun and games—it is vitally important for children’s healthy development. In addition to promoting physical well-being, play provides the foundation for learning and academic success, is critical for the development of creative problem-solving and imagination, and helps children learn how to interact with others. Play integrates all types of learning, including physical, social, emotional, and intellectual.

The Alliance for Childhood defines play as a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. Children can play anywhere and with anything, but the natural world is an especially inviting place for play. It beckons children to invent, explore, and try different things. Open-ended play in natural settings or with natural objects enhances curiosity and triggers the imagination. Many of the Growing Up WILD activities invite open ended nature play, and specific suggestions can be found in the Take Me Outside and Centers & Extensions sections.

Math Connections

Math is more than numbers. It is a complex subject that centers on the concepts of quantity, shapes, patterns, measurement, and change. Research suggests that people are “predisposed” to learn simple math as young as in infancy. Early math concepts include recognizing shapes and sizes; counting verbally; and identifying quantities. Educators and parents can help build on this natural predisposition through instruction, games, and hands-on activities to give young children a strong foundation for future math learning.

Each Growing Up WILD activity includes a Mighty Math section with suggestions for incorporating math. These suggestions connect math to nature and everyday life and give young children practice using math vocabulary. Collectively, they encourage children to sort, compare, and classify objects; display data with graphs and pictures; identify shapes; and make measurements.

Language & Literacy Connections

Although children may not become full-blown readers until well into elementary school, they begin the process of learning to read as newborns. Early experiences like being read to aloud, exploring books, and playing with words and letters help young children develop the rich vocabulary and broad knowledge base they will need to become readers and writers. These activities help children hear and manipulate sounds, name and recognize letters, and deepen listening and speaking abilities. Growing Up WILD promotes early literacy experiences in a number of ways:

  • Each Growing Up WILD activity lists read-aloud fiction and non-fiction book recommendations in the Resources section.
  • The Music & Movement section of most activities features rhyming songs, poems, and finger plays that promote awareness of the sounds and structure of language.
  • Student Resource Pages have both pictures and simple word labels.
  • The Centers & Extensions section of many activities suggests specific ideas for reading centers.
  • Many activities incorporate the use of a Nature Notebook for children to record in words or pictures the observations and discoveries they make. The notebook itself can be a small spiral bound notebook, several pieces of paper stapled together, or a ring binder.
  • Many activities encourage children’s verbal descriptions and conversations about their experiences and learning about nature.

Healthy Kids

Recent trends in the health of U.S. children are extremely alarming. Since the 1960s, childhood obesity has increased five-fold—with devastating short- and long-term consequences, including a greater likelihood to develop Type 2 diabetes and a greater risk for heart disease. In recent years, there has also been a sharp increase in cavities in children—especially in those younger and poorer—a sign of overall declining dental health.

Many factors have contributed to these trends, including diet and reduced activity level of children. As these trends now affect younger and younger children, it is vital that early childhood settings help promote a healthy lifestyle for children. Whenever possible, children should be encouraged to be active, eat healthfully, and understand and make healthful choices.

Every Growing Up WILD activity contains the following components to promote healthful practices in early childhood settings:

  • Healthy Me! —suggests ways to encourage healthy habits in children and involves topics such as physical exercise, nutrition, personal hygiene, or safety.
  • Snack —offers ideas for a healthful snack related to the activity theme; these use fruits, vegetables, and whole grains whenever possible.
  • Take Me Outside —provides suggestions for taking the learning outside and often involves physical activities such as running games and nature hikes.
  • Music & Movement —includes dance, role play, and other physical movement activities.

Sparking Creativity

Creativity is the natural exploration of new ideas. Young children seem to have boundless creativity, being naturally curious and imaginative. Parents, caregivers and educators can promote and encourage children’s creativity by engaging them in hands-on experiences like drawing, painting, sculpting, music, movement, and drama.

Growing Up WILD promotes creative expression in several different ways:

  • Each activity includes Art Projects related to the activity topic. Some of these projects involve children in free expression, while others are leader guided with a particular end result in mind. Collectively, the projects use a wide variety of materials and art forms and help to promote children’s creativity and skill.
  • Many of the Growing Up WILD activities include one or more ideas for engaging children in dramatic play or music. These suggestions may be found in the Music & Movement, Centers & Extensions, Take Me Outside, or Home Connections  sections.

Scientific Inquiry

Anyone working with young children has heard the questions “Why?” and “How come?” more than a few times. Young children are naturally curious and inquisitive. Like scientists, they actively engage in the world around them and work to make sense of their observations and experiences.

One way to encourage children’s curiosity about the natural world is through field investigations. For scientists, a field investigation means collecting in depth information about a particular environment, wildlife species, or natural event; looking for patterns; and reporting what they find. For young children, a field investigation can be as simple as observing a tree, and taking note of what they see, hear, smell, and feel.

The Growing Up WILD activity “Field Study Fun” outlines a simple field investigation, focusing on a small field study plot. This activity provides all the basics for conducting any field investigation, and may be adapted to your particular setting or group of children. For example, it may focus on a single plant, or it may encompass a school playground or nearby park; it may be a one-time experience, or it may be repeated over time or in different places so that children might see patterns and make comparisons. In addition to “Field Study Fun,” “Ants on Parade” models the scientific method. Several other Growing Up WILD activities offer suggestions for investigation and inquiry in the Procedures, Take Me Outside, Centers & Extensions, and Home Connections sections.

For information on making the most of investigation and inquiry click here.

Assessing Children's Learning

Many people think that assessing children’s learning means giving them a test at the end of a lesson or unit. Although tests may be utilized, assessment should involve much more. In a broad sense, assessment is the on-going process of finding out what children are thinking and what they can do. It may entail asking children questions, observing what they say to one another, or seeing how they perform a particular task. Assessment is critical for discovering what children really know, and then figuring out what learning activities can follow to clarify or deepen their thinking and improve their skills. In addition to children’s learning, educators also assess outcomes in curriculum standards, program criteria, and other areas.

Educators are the best suited to make decisions about which tools are most appropriate for their educational goals, but Growing Up WILD provides several ways to help with the important task of assessment:

  • Each Growing Up WILD activity includes a Warm Up to find out children’s current understanding of concepts and a Wrap Up for assessing what they have learned from the main activity. The educator may choose to create additional open-ended questions to assess children’s understanding of concepts and skills addressed in related components such as Mighty Math or Helping Hands.
  • Many activities also include “authentic assessment”  opportunities in which children perform real-world tasks that demonstrate their skill or knowledge. These include journaling, making field guides, graphing, taking digital photos, conducting interviews, creating artistic representations and other activities that may be found in Centers & Extensions, Home Connections, or Mighty Math components.
  • Nature Notebooks are a wonderful assessment tool and are included in several Growing Up WILD activities. Children record their ideas and observations and create representations of wildlife in their own notebooks. Take advantage of this resource to allow for individual assessment of each child’s understanding.


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