Research Findings

Natural Outdoor Classrooms: A National Survey

By Samuel Dennis Jr, Christine Kiewra and Alexandra Wells. With photographs and quotes from follow-up interviews by Rod Diercks. (September 2019)

Playing with Nature: Supporting Preschoolers’ Creativity in Natural Outdoor Classrooms

by Kiewra, C. & Veselack, E. (2016) The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1), p. 70-95

468_061Conducted at two separate natural outdoor classrooms with preschool-aged children from three to five years old, this qualitative research study investigated how outdoor environments supported children’s creativity and imagination. Although many studies have explored the development of creative arts in the young children, few have focused on creativity with regard to problem solving, ingenuity, and construction, as did this study. Four factors in natural outdoor classrooms that enhance children’s creativity and imagination were revealed: (a) predictable spaces, (b) ample and consistent time, (c) open-ended materials, and (d) caring, observant adults who support creative play and learning.

A Post-Occupancy Study of Nature-Based Outdoor Classrooms in Early Childhood Settings

by Dennis, S.F., Wells, A., & Bishop, C. (2014) Children, Youth and  Environments 24(2): 35-52.

postoccupancy-crop-u6744Nature Explore and the Outdoor Classroom Project are among the organizations at the forefront of the movement to create nature-based learning environments in early childhood settings. To date, hundreds of outdoor classrooms have been built using their evidence-based guiding principles. This post-occupancy study examined the extent to which these spaces produced their intended outcomes. Overall, our findings support existing theories linking nature-based outdoor education to positive learning and developmental outcomes including enhanced imaginative play, increased physical and mental well-being, and environmental stewardship. However, the most successful environments: (1) maximized choices, (2) provided many distinct spaces, especially child-sized ones, (3) embedded play affordances within pathways and borders, (4) encouraged spatial evolution, and (5) supported ongoing stakeholder engagement.

The Seeds of Learning: Young Children Develop Important Skills Through Their Gardening Activities at a Midwestern Early Education Program (2007)

by Miller, D. L. Applied Environmental Education and Communication 6: 49-66.

seedsoflearning-crop-u6764Using teachers as co-researchers to collect and analyze data, this case study explored preschool- and kindergartener-aged children’s learning when they were engaged in hands-on activities in the garden and greenhouse areas of a model outdoor classroom. Key findings suggest that when young children are participating in garden and greenhouse activities, they are: (1) communicating their knowledge about the world to others, (2) conveying (and learning to process and manage) emotions, and (3) developing important skills (e.g., initiative, self-confidence, literacy, math, science skills) that will help them be more successful in school and better navigate the world.

How Play in a Nature Explore Classroom Supports Preschool and Kindergarten-age Children’s Math Learning: A Single Case Study at an Early Education Program in Nebraska

446_54-crop-u5543The outdoor environment is a rich context for mathematical learning as well as learning in other academic domains. This paper highlights the natural materials and experiences available to children in a Certified Nature Explore Classroom that support the development of mathematical concepts such as classification, sorting, patterns, measuring, counting and comparison.

Supporting Parent Engagement in Children’s Learning Outdoors: A Single Case Study

21-crop-u5555-crop-u5555This single case study explored parents’ understanding and support of their children’s learning outdoors through parent-documented observations that took place in one Certified Nature Explore Classroom at Forest Lake Family Center, Forest Lake, Minnesota, and in home-based settings. The research also examined ways program components (curriculum, environment, relationships with staff) supported parents’ understanding of their children’s learning outdoors. Read this study to discover ideas for family experiences in nature and to gain a better understanding of the benefits of time outdoors including the skill development that takes place for children in nature. A full color, bound version is also available for purchase here.

Teachers as Co-researchers: How the Co-researcher Role has Transformed Teachers and Nature Education for Young Children at an Early Education Program in the Midwest

455_011-crop-u5664This single case study explores the role of early childhood educators who serve as co-researchers in an early education program that has a strong nature/environmental emphasis. The data teachers collect and analyze are used to continually improve classroom practice and Nature Explore resources and services. Teachers are considered “participant-observers” because along with their co- researcher roles, they participate simultaneously as fully functioning members of this teaching and learning community. Besides their primary role as teachers, they are also the “human instruments” that closely observe children and document their experiences. This is an action research model in which teacher/co-researchers make the connection between theory and practice. This paper describes both the ongoing research Dimensions has conducted for the past ten years (i.e., the holistic case study), AND the specific research that explores teachers’ perceptions of the teacher/co-researcher role (i.e., the embedded case study). Both are discussed because understanding the larger context of our research is central to understanding teachers’ involvement as co-researchers.

This Never Would Have Happened Indoors: Supporting Preschool-Age Children’s Learning in a Nature Explore Classroom in Minnesota

446_09-crop-u5519-crop-u5579Parents from the Dimensions Research site in Forest Lake, Minnesota described the many benefits of regular time in nature including improved sleep habits in children, cardiovascular health, increased physical strength, a greater sense of calm and focus, improved mood, a belief that there are fewer germs outdoors than indoors, and a belief that outdoor play gave their children opportunities to exercise distance vision and absorb healthy amounts of Vitamin D.

Young Children Develop Foundational Skills Through Child-initiated Experiences in a Nature Explore Classroom: A Single Case Study in La Canada, California

lacanadanec-042-crop-u5596-crop-u5596This research, conducted in one Nature Explore Classroom at the Child Educational Center in California, focused on: 1) the skills children were developing during child-initiated experiences outdoors and 2) the roles the environment and teachers played in supporting young children’s learning. The grand tour research question that guided the inquiry was, “How does young children’s engagement in child-initiated activities in the Nature Explore Classroom facilitate skill development?” This research makes an important contribution to the current literature base, because few studies have focused specifically on preschool-age children’s skill development in outdoor environments, such as intentionally designed Certified Nature Explore Classrooms.

Young Children’s Authentic Play in a Nature Explore Classroom Supports Foundational Learning: A Single Case Study

392_010-crop-u5605-crop-u5605-crop-u5605Extensive research has documented the powerful role of play in children’s development and the importance of getting children outdoors. Yet, in today’s culture both play and time in nature have become endangered species. This study describes the efforts of the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation to address both play and nature deficits through the creation of Nature Explore Classrooms that encourage children, families, and educators to connect with nature in meaningful ways. Specifically this research documents key learning that occurred for young children when they were engaged in authentic play in a Nature Explore Classroom. It adds to the growing body of evidence that substantiates that for young children, play is learning and intentionally designed outdoor spaces provide powerful contexts for growth and development. A full color, bound version is also available for purchase here.

Teacher Perceptions of a Sustained Nature Focus in a Minnesota Early Education Program: A Single Case Study (2015) 

by Bohling, V., Saarela, C., and Miller, D.L.

teacherperceptions-crop-u6719This paper describes the impact of creating a Nature Explore outdoor classroom while providing ongoing teacher training and administrative support to create a culture shift in the entire program. The impact of enhancing the outdoor environment and teaching with nature influenced teacher’s attitudes about and practice of spending time outdoors with children. Throughout the data there were many examples of how teachers were thinking differently as a result of the change to a nature focus.

Raindrops on Noses and Toes in the Dirt: Infants and Toddlers in the Outdoor Classroom (2015) 

by Veselack E., Miller, D.L., and Cain-Chang, L.

Infants and toddlers in well-designed outdoor spaces (Nature Explore Classrooms) gain safe access to a wide variety of sights, sounds, textures and even tastes. This expands their knowledge of the world and provides foundations for learning. This original qualitative research conducted at the Child Educational Center in La Cañada, California took place with children ages 4 months to 35 months. Three themes emerged: 1) young children developed skills as they explored and played outdoors, 2) the length of time outdoors was significant, and 3) experiences in nature were unique from indoors or typical outdoor care settings. The findings focus on infants and toddlers in the outdoor environment and support the idea of the very youngest of children spending long periods of their days outdoors in contact with nature. Learning begins at birth and infants and toddlers need to have every opportunity to explore, engage, discover and wonder.

Helping Children Learn to Love the Earth Before We Ask Them to Save It: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children

27265adf_0329smallThis position paper from early Dimensions Foundation work describes a rationale for developmentally appropriate environmental education. A short synopsis of research describes the factors contributing to children’s disconnection from the natural world.

Working Hypotheses

workinghypothesisThis document summarizes four years of data collection and analysis conducted by Dimensions’ Executive Director, teachers, an architect consultant, and qualitative research specialists. The insights note the impact of visual images and a visual note-taking technique especially as it relates to gender and children with special needs.

More than Play – An Early Article Summarizing our Findings

455_043-crop-u5644Published internally as a supplement to the Dimensions’ Education Programs Parent Newsletter. This piece summarizes some of the key findings based on the analysis of teachers’ early visual-notes. It includes samples of children and teachers’ sketches, and sample categories from the Construction Typology.