Nature-Based Early Childhood Education

Increasingly, schools across the nation are incorporating nature into their classrooms, following research that tracks the benefits of integrating nature with education. This ongoing research shows that spending time outside supports children’s developmental, cognitive, emotional, physical and social growth in unique ways that a highly structured indoor classroom cannot provide (see Natural Start Alliance’s 2017 national survey results here).

Public, private, Montessori and other schools have created lessons or programs that offer preschoolers and/or kindergarteners the chance to learn outdoors.

When access to outdoor spaces is connected with research-based teaching techniques, the resulting program is referred to as Nature-Based Early Childhood Education: a powerful way to support our youngest learners.







At Merry Lea, this translates into students:

  • Practicing observation and writing skills through sit spot journaling
  • Developing balance, agility, and gross motor skills while climbing on logs, stumps and trees
  • Engineering shelters out of found objects such as mud, sticks, and leaves while discovering the properties of materials and their uses
  • Cultivating a sense of wonder and inquiry while watching the changes around them: buds swelling into leaves; mushrooms emerging, fruiting, and decomposing; evidence of animal activity
  • …and more!

While we incorporate these concepts into all of our educational experiences, our program repertoire includes two pioneering initiatives: Nature Preschool and Kinderforest.

What is Nature Preschool?

Nature Preschools are built around the belief that early childhood is a critical time for learning, and that nature offers an incredibly rich setting that stimulates a developing child’s brain and body in unexpected ways. 

In our program, students are outside 2 hours a day, four days a week, September through May (yes, even in rain, snow and freezing temperatures!). We partner with Central Noble Primary School, Wolf Lake, Ind. and the Cole Center Family YMCA, Kendallville, Ind., to provide this program.

What is Kinderforest?

“Kinderforest” is the name of an emerging trend in northern Indiana designed to help public and private schools take their students outside. It is a regional adaptation of year-round outdoor Forest Schools (or Forest Kindergartens), supporting traditional classrooms in realizing the benefits of nature for student learning and growth.

Kinderforest relies on multiple return visits to a natural location, at least once per month. Activities on a Kinderforest day connect to classroom topics, spark novel ways of engaging this content and are linked to state standards.

We have partnered with local public, private and Montessori schools in creating and implementing several Kinderforest programs.

Our Philosophy

We believe the natural environment provides irresistible invitations for children to engage, learn and grow. Repeated, authentic experiences in nature lead to ownership, care, and stewardship of the earth and of living things.

We believe children are competent learners who have autonomy over their own learning, allowing curiosity to guide their growth. Our research-based program design allows children to grow socially, physically, emotionally and cognitively through play and exploration. Offering children choice from a variety of learning tools contributes to: ownership over their learning, increased individual development and enhanced motivation. 

We believe the role of the educator is to guide, empower and facilitate with respect and care, supporting students’ own learning. Adults are co-discoverers with children, modeling inquiry as an avenue towards discovery.

Program Resources

We believe nature-based early childhood education is a powerful tool to help children grow, learn and develop. We want to get that tool into the hands of educators in our region. 

To find out more about educational training, resources, research and professional development opportunities, click the Resources and Research button.