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Nature Play IS Learning and DOES Include Academics in Outdoor Nature Based Preschools and Forest Schools

Updated: May 5

Adults and parents sometimes wonder whether Outdoor and Play Based preschools are the right choice. Even when considering an Outdoor Nature Based Preschool or Forest School they might ask them-selves: “should I choose a more academic based program so my kid is more ‘school ready'?" Or they might wonder “Maybe I can have my kid attend a day or two of Nature School or Forest School in addition to my kids ‘real’ school."

In our previous blog post, "School Readiness, Forest Schools and Rainbow Scarabs - Oh My!!!" we explained how current research suggests that after attending a

program like the Nature School Cooperative Outdoor nature-based preschool, by the time your student is in 3rd grade, 6th grade, 9th grade and beyond, the imprinting they have in these early years of the will set them up for "readiness" in more important "below the tip of the iceberg" skills: Broad vocabulary, interest in language, curiosity, persistence, attentiveness, incidental learning, drive to learn, predictability, memory and self control. The other three above the tip of the iceberg skills (letters, sounds and numbers) are achieved through the emphasis on deeper experiences.

We follow a play-based approach AND this also includes deep learning.

This means Nature and Regenerative Ecology are the subjects, play is the method and learning is the outcome. This includes academic skills (letters, sounds and numbers). The concept that you have to choose Play Based vs Academic Based does not need to be an either/or choice. Amanda Morgan with her “Why We Play Letters” explains:

“There’s a long, worn-out battle about early childhood curriculum. Should it be play-based or academic-based? Should the early years be for playful discovery or intentional foundation building? The argument goes round and round with each camp accusing the other of missing the mark. ​​In all this time spent vilifying the other side, it may have been overlooked that the two groups are actually arguing over a false dichotomy.”

At Nature School Cooperative Outdoor nature-based preschool we are trained in dynamic and complex facilitation of content, facilitated through play, with learning as an outcome. "The Ludic Process and Nature Play Cycle Webinar" explains how there is a Play Cycle of adult-lead to student-lead, and adult-initiated leading to student initiated. Our guides are trained in this, and consistently reflect on how to recognize when to step in and when to step out at the different needs of students.

Many adults may come and observe kids playing outdoors and remark how “that is cute” but Amanda Morgan explains in her podcast “It’s Not Just Cute” with her guest Megan Fitzgerald of Tinkergarten that emphasizes how nature play is a powerful way to benefit all children’s development leading to happier, healthier individuals and communities.

It is well known and supported with research that young children learn through play. It is less well known that ALL other important characteristics of Primary Learners (Rhythm, Repetition, Ritual, Belonging, Exploring, Independence, Mastery, Stories, Patterns, Identities and Expression) all involve play within that subject/topic.

For any subject/topic, play is the method and learning is the outcome.

Research and other experts referenced in this EL Education Characteristics of Primary Learners document reference the word "play" 22 times and only 8 times are from the section/topic of "Young children learn through play". The other 14 out of 22 times play is mentioned as a method within the other important subjects.

Characteristics of Primary Learners

  • Young children find security in rhythm, ritual, and repetition.

  • Young children learn through play.

  • Young children want to belong to a community that is safe, beautiful, and good.

  • Young children explore the world with wonder.

  • Young children “understand” the world first through their bodies.

  • Young children seek independence and mastery.

  • Young children thrive in the natural world.

  • Young children use stories to construct meaning.

  • Young children seek patterns in the world around them.

  • Young children construct their identities and build cultural bridges.

  • Young children express themselves in complex ways.

At Nature School Cooperative we have training and background from experts in EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) and we have routines, rituals, activities and teacher facilitation that centers the concepts in the Characteristics of Primary Learners.

We understand that play is the way children learn. Our programs are designed to best support their neural development for important aspects of life long success. We incorporate all 11 of the Characteristics of Primary Learners, and we use play to bring them all to life.

Our blog posts are written for a diverse audience of families, guardians, parents, practitioners, graduate students and other adults with topics covering a “Tangled Bank” (one of Darwin’s most enduring metaphors) of interests, initiatives, and networks. Through Outdoor Nature Based Preschools (ONB Preschools), Forest School for older grades K-8 and Emergent Strategy Bushcraft Workshops for Adults, we explore the perception, observation, interpretation and reciprocity of senses from human and non humans’ perspective. Central to the topics for all age groups is the concept that Early Childhood is “Not just cute, but powerful and incredibly important”.

Find out more about our Outdoor Preschool here.

Stay tuned to our blog posts for adult learning workshops both online and in person in 2024.

Full List of Characteristics of Primary Learners EL Education Retrieved from:

Rhythm and Ritual Poole, C., Miller, S.A., and Church E.B. (2014). Ages & stages: How children develop a sense of time. Retrieved from

Burton, R. (2011). The experience of time in the very young. Retrieved from

Play Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery: New York. Ackerman, D. (1999). Deep play. New York: Vintage Books. NAEYC (1996) Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Position statement. Washington, D.C: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Belonging Bower, N. M. (2013) Adventure, play, peace: Insights and activities for social-emotional learning and community building with young children. Bethany, OK: Wood N Barnes Publishing. Howard, S. (2006). “What is Waldorf Early Childhood Education?” Gateways Fall/Winter. Waldorf Early Childhood Education Association.

Wonder Gonya, J. Early childhood building blocks: Turning curiosity into scientific inquiry, Resources for early childhood, an online resource for Ohio educators. Retrieved from Chouinard MM. (2007). Children’s questions: a mechanism for cognitive development. Monogr. Soc. Res. Child Dev, 72(1):vii-ix, 1-112; discussion 113-26.

Bodies First Flanagan, J. (2009). Sensory processing disorder. Pediatric News. Retrieved from Montessori, M. (1948). The discovery of the child. Madras: Kalkshetra Publications Press.

Independence and Mastery Copple, C., and S. Bredekamp, eds. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving birth through 8. Washington: NAEYC. Erikson, Erik H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. New York: International Universities Press.

Natural World Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia : Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society. Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books Of Chapel Hill.

Pattern Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. NAEYC and NCTM (2010). Early childhood mathematics: Promoting good beginnings. Joint Position Statement, Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Storytelling Miller, S. and Pennycuff, L. (2008). The power of story: Using storytelling to improve literacy learning. Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education. 1(1), 36 – 43. Hamilton, M. and Weiss. M. (2005). Children tell stories: Teaching and using storytelling in the classroom. Katonah, NY: Richard C. Owen Publishers. Egan, K. (1989). Teaching as storytelling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., and Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Identity and Culture Brooker, L. and M. Woodhead, M. eds. (2008). Developing positive identities: Diversity and young children. Early Childhood in Focus (3). Milton Keynes, U.K.: The Open University. Linda Espinosa (2010). Getting it RIGHT for young children from diverse backgrounds: Applying research to improve practice. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Parke, R. D., & Gauvain, M. (2009). Gender roles and gender differences. Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2009. 475-503. NAEYC (1995). Position statement on school readiness. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Expression Heard, G. and McDonough (2009). A place for wonder: Reading and writing nonfiction in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Edwards, C. P. and Willis, L. M. (2000). Integrating visual and verbal literacies in the early childhood classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal. 27(4), 259-265. Edwards, C.P., Gandini, L., and Forman, G. (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach advanced reflections. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

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