Resources and Research

When an appropriate pedagogy of nature-based early childhood education (NbECE) is implemented, there are myriad health and cognitive benefits for children’s development. Their learning experience becomes deep, authentic and lasting.

Merry Lea is a resource to area districts and educators in NbECE to incorporate nature-based experiences into the classroom for furthering children’s learning.

You can find upcoming professional development and observation opportunities on our webpage here:

In addition to providing professional development opportunities, we support teachers and administrators on their own journey of discovery and implementation in the following ways:

  1. Written program resources
  2. Program design and implementation
  3. A curated list of research

Written Program Resources

Kinderforest: Connections to Indiana Academic Standards

How does Kinderforest connect to academic standards? Although meeting academic standards is not the intent behind nature-based early childhood education, they are inevitably supported within well-designed and high-quality Forest Kindergartens. Learn about how this can be accomplished in our white paper:

General Safety and Behavior Guidelines

This document captures the overall guidelines that educators may consider or implement in their own nature-based activities. Some of these guidelines include facilitating risky play, encouraging respectful behavior and adjusting to weather.

A Guide on Creating Kinderforest Lesson Plans

Using Kinderforest’s pedagogical approach to connect nature-based activities with classroom curriculum can be challenging. To help with this, these guidelines describe best practices when developing facilitated activities for a Kinderforest day. They can be used as a guide when choosing activities, writing lesson plans and preparing accompanying materials.

Sit Spot Pedagogy and Academic Alignments

Research shows that sit spot time is an opportunity for self-exploration, to develop a sense of self-awareness and an appreciation for a student’s own space. Each student has a journal to record their thoughts, their observations of what they hear, smell and see, pose questions or share their feelings.

Program Design and Implementation

We work with schools to adapt, create and implement nature-based practices or programs that get their students learning outside. Recognizing that each school’s needs and settings are unique, our partnership models are flexible and individualized. We provide varying degrees of implementation, from a 3-year track model to a consultation model.

We encourage schools we work with to consider:

  1. How families and the community can be involved as critical stakeholders. Families and community partners can be engaged in supporting student success through regular updates, engagement as active participants and many other contributions.
  2. How their NbECE program should be structured to meet its stated goals. This may influence the location of the program, its frequency or program elements.

No matter the type of partnership, we want to support educators in adapting and designing NbECE into their settings. We are a resource for training, philosophy development, classroom connections and other support as needed.

Reach out to Marcos Stoltzfus at marcosas@goshen.edu to learn more about partnering with us.

Regional and National Research on NbECE programs

United States Forest School Programs

  • Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: 2017 National Survey” by North American Association for Environmental Education: “A national survey of nature-based early childhood educators conducted in 2017 identified more than 250 nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating across the country.” Less than 5 recognized NbECE programs were in the state of Indiana.
  • Regional survey (Proctor, 2020) identified only 10 programs in the Northern IN/Southern MI region that self-identified as being a NbECE program, or having elements of NbECE as part of their program.

Overall Forest School Philosophy 

  • Children’s Contact with the Outdoors and Nature: a Focus on Educators and Educational Settings” in Children & Nature Network: “These articles and documents synthesize the literature related to children’s contact with the outdoors and nature and, in many cases, highlight children’s contact as it relates to educational settings.”
    • By Charles, C. & Senauer, A. (2010)
  • What is Forest School?” by Forest School Association: “Forest School is a child-centred inspirational learning process, that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting.”
  • Forest Schools: A Philosophy of Child-Led Learning” by Novak Djokovic Foundation: “Forest school curriculum is child-directed and play-based. The forest school allows learners the time and space to develop their interests, skills, and understanding through practical, hands-on experiences.”
    • Kostic, M. (2016)
  • Forest School in Practice: For All Ages: “Forest School expert and teacher Sara Knight…inspires and encourages individuals of all ages to take an innovative approach to outdoor play and learning. The images throughout the book bring alive Forest School activities and each chapter is accompanied by creative ideas for practice and in depth case studies from across the United Kingdom and Ireland exploring the amazing variety of nature provision.”
    • By Knight, S. (2016)

NbECE supports child development and social emotional learning

  • Reduces anxiety and depression, promotes focus
  • Benefits crucial social relationships, self-esteem, creativity and problem-solving skills
  • Better physical development and motor skills
  • Back to School: Back Outside! How Outdoor Education and Outdoor School Time Create High Performance Students” by National Wildlife Federation: “In this report, we summarize the available studies on the role of outdoor learning programs and outdoor play time in furthering children’s overall education: improving their lifelong learning skills, prospects for career success and school test scores.”
    • By Coyle, K. (2010)
  • Kindergarten, Naturally” in The Atlantic: “The teacher, Pelo, explained…how she and the two aides aspire to teach the kindergartners in the woods. She described this approach as “secret” learning, when children are unaware that they’re learning academic content. In the forest, these Finnish educators might lead the children to find sticks of varying lengths and organize them from shortest to longest, form letters out of natural materials, or count mushrooms.”
    • By Walker, T.D. (2016)
  • 5 Questions: Does Your Child Have Nature-Deficit Disorder” in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “The research indicates that experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, for children and adults. The studies strongly suggest that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm them and help them focus.”
    • By Bauers, S. (2018)
  • The Benefits of Nature Play for Children” by First Five Years: Unstructured and child-directed nature play boosts creativity, movement that promotes physical health, social skills, self-confidence and more.
    • (2020)
  • Research Digest: Physical Health Benefits of Nature Contact” by Children & Nature Network: “This special issue focuses on the physical health benefits of both passive and active forms of nature engagement. Also discussed are several ideas about how health-care professionals are tapping into the health-promoting powers of nature engagement.”
    • (2020)

Contact Us

Marcos Stoltzfus

Director of Environmental Education Outreach

Office: Learning Center Building at Merry Lea

Marcos joined the Merry Lea team in 2016, and brings more than 10 years of experience in informal and environmental education settings. He graduated from Goshen College with majors in Biology and Environmental Studies, and has worked at nature centers and museums in Colorado, New York, and Minnesota. He completed a Masters in Nonprofit Management, where his thesis focused on nonprofits engaging in urban farming practices. Marcos oversees the Public & PreK-12 Environmental Education programs at Merry Lea, and works with MAEE students in their practicum experience. Read more »