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Help set the research agenda: What do we need to know about nature-based learning?

By Cathy Jordan

Fueled by Richard Louv’s popular book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, and supported by the organization Children & Nature Network, (which Louv and several others co-founded in 2006) a worldwide movement has been gaining traction to reconnect children to the natural environment. More and more research is being published suggesting that nature play and nature-based learning provide children with benefits across the age range and across diverse developmental areas including: physical health, mental health, learning, motor development, cognitive development, and social-emotional learning.

However, there is a lot more we need to know, particularly about the questions of what works, for whom, how, and under what circumstances. Answering these questions will inform the practice of educators, educational administrators, youth workers, youth program developers, policy makers, planners, and designers, among others.

I have the opportunity to help answer these questions about one of the ways nature promotes children’s and youths’ development – by enhancing their learning and educational outcomes. I am collaborating with the Children & Nature Network and the North American Association for Environmental Education on a new National Science Foundation-funded project called the “Science of Nature-based Learning Collaborative Research Network” (NBL Network). This network is composed of researchers from across the country, as well as practitioner leaders in non-profit, professional society, public education, and museum sectors.

One of the first tasks of the NBL Network is to develop a long-term interdisciplinary research agenda about nature and learning that can serve as the foundation for collaborative studies within the network and as guidance for other researchers and in setting funders’ priorities. One way we are approaching this task is to ask others for their input.

So, help us ask research questions relevant to practice and decision-making.

Do you work directly with children and youth, or develop programs or curriculum? What do you need to know to help you most effectively connect children and youth to nature and to realize the associated learning benefits and educational outcomes?

Are you in a decision-making or policy-making role? What evidence-based information would help you make solid decisions to promote the development and children and youth?

Do you conduct evaluation or research? What do you think researchers need to be studying, and how, in order to provide evidence to enhance practice and policy-making?

For more information about the NBL Network visit the Children & Nature Network website.

And to learn more about connecting kids to nature from national and international leaders in the movement, come to the 2016 Children & Nature Network International Conference and Cities & Nature Summit May 24-27 at the St. Paul River Centre. Join leaders from around the world to hear what others are doing to create nature-rich communities that are so critical to the development, health and well-being of children, youth and families. Learn about the latest research and policies, hear from leading health and urban planning experts, and discover innovations that are bringing new audiences to nature.

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Hello Mrs. Jordan,
    My name is Vincent Webb and I am FoodCorps service member at Down East Partnership for Children. I essentially connect kids to real food so that they can grow up healthy and one of the ways that I do that is by delivering garden based education to two elementary schools in Rocky Mount, NC. We have just kicked off our spring garden lessons and I can definitely say that nature based education really helps children easily retain concepts from math, language arts, social studies, science, art, music, and physical education. Every moment just about brings an opportunity to learn at least one thing. Sometimes those moments can teach something that children and adults alike will use for the rest of their life. I do make decisions about the FoodCorps instruction that is supposed to be delivered to the students; however I do not have much pull when it comes to policy making. I would love to see the teachers and staff at the two schools take ownership and utilize the new outdoor learning environments that have been provided for them through Down East Partnership. They have nice outdoor teaching areas with a lot of nature around them including music and art stations, but they seem to view it as just a playground. I would like to know how I can get them to incorporate more nature based learning that will teach kids about food and nutrition.

    1. Thanks so much for your response. I share your interest in helping teachers be better prepared to use outdoor learning spaces. I'll add this to our research agenda list of questions. - Cathy Jordan

  2. I work with families and also develop curriculum. I would like to know how natural an environment needs to be to realize the most benefits from nature play. I would assume there is a continuum based on level of landscape modification. I don't know if this question has been addressed in prior studies. Alex Watson, Naturalist, Minnesota State Parks and Trails.

    1. Thanks so much for your response. Great question. I'll add this to our research agenda list of questions.

  3. As a teacher I am interested to know is it simply the benefit of being outside in nature and moving around - something that benefits my mindset as a human- or is the teaching about nature and/or integrating other subjects to nature necessary?

    1. Thanks for your comment. That's just the sort of question we need to be asking. It starts to get at the mechanisms and the "why" and "how" questions that are lacking, for the most part, in our research base. I'll add your question to our research agenda. - Cathy Jordan


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