Natural Wonder

Elon faculty and students explore how outdoor environments enhance children’s thinking and learning.

Psychology major Cara McClain ’14 works with summer campers at her mother’s preschool and summer camp.

By Alexa Boschini ‘10

A group of preschool students work in the school garden when suddenly something catches their eye—a large pile of seeds on the ground. They gather around and point out the pile to their teacher. “I see what you’re noticing,” the teacher responds. “What do you think it is?” The students begin to speculate about the mysterious seeds and where they came from when they look up and notice a large sunflower drooping above their heads. They make the connection between the position of the sunflower and the location of the pile and deduce that they are, in fact, sunflower seeds.

The teacher knew this all along, but rather than giving them the answer, she asked the students open-ended questions to help them solve the puzzle on their own. “If she had just said, ‘Oh those are sunflower seeds,’ it wouldn’t have been a big moment,” says Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, professor of psychology and director of Elon’s Center for Research on Global Engagement. “Instead it was a process of exciting discovery. They built up all this enthusiasm for the question.”

This interaction is one of many pieces of data Vandermaas-Peeler has collected in more than 20 years of studying early childhood development. Her research explores the intricacies of how children learn and how teachers and parents can guide that process most effectively. In recent years, her work has focused extensively on how children learn in natural outdoor environments and how those experiences foster a spirit of inquiry. “The natural world is never going to be the same twice,” Vandermaas-Peeler says. “There are going to be animals and flowers and life that are different, so it’s a constant source of entertainment and learning.”

But as more children in the United States spend less time outside, both at school and in their free time, these nature encounters are diminishing. Assistant Professor of Education Scott Morrison points to author and journalist Richard Louv’s writings on “nature-deficit,” which links children’s lack of exposure to the outdoors to issues like technology dependence and behavioral problems, as well as education writer David Sobel’s concept of ecophobia. “There are snakes, spiders, bees, poison ivy, sunburn, stranger danger, pollution, sharp objects and you might get dirty. All of those factors lead to kids spending less time outside,” Morrison says.

Like Vandermaas-Peeler, Morrison has witnessed firsthand the benefits of outdoor learning environments, not only in early childhood but throughout students’ entire education. He explores it extensively in his own research with students at Elon. “There is a culture in the U.S. in which many parents want to reduce the amount of risk that children experience,” Morrison says. “That actually has negative consequences for their physical and psychological development because they’re kept from opportunities to ascertain what is safe and not safe.”

A lesson in risk-taking

​Throughout her career at Elon, Vandermaas-Peeler has studied the ways children learn through everyday activities, such as learning measuring skills by cooking with a parent or developing math or literacy skills by playing. She shifted her focus to children’s behavior in natural world contexts when she began mentoring Cara McClain ’14 on her Honors Fellows thesis and Lumen Prize research. McClain’s mother is the founder and co-teacher at Children First, a nonprofit preschool in Durham, North Carolina, rooted in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which focuses on exploration and experiential learning.

Students in psychology professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler’s Early Childhood Development class observe and discuss children and parents visiting their class.

The school has a substantial outdoor curriculum, and through her research McClain wanted to better understand how outdoor experiences impact preschoolers’ social-emotional, cognitive and physical development. “The preschool is in the bottom floor of my house, so I grew up around preschoolers and was always interested in their development,” McClain says. “It’s a school where children have seamless access to indoor and outdoor spaces and also take weekly trips to a river near the school, so I had a sense that it was important from seeing the kids spending time outside and also experiencing nature myself.” McClain and Vandermaas-Peeler spent a year interviewing and collecting video of the Children First preschoolers at the river and at a creek and garden on the school’s property.

They coded their observations and their findings revealed a multitude of examples of how children learn through exploration. McClain and Vandermaas-Peeler observed some children who had no qualms engaging in “risky play” with environmental features, splashing in a rushing creek or climbing atop a tall rock without hesitation. Others were more uncertain but learned to navigate obstacles, like a student who wanted to join his classmates on a rock in the river. He didn’t want to get wet, but after some guidance from his teacher, he asked a peer to give him a hand as he stepped onto the rock from the river bank. “Risky play provides opportunities for children to make good decisions,” Vandermaas-Peeler says. “They might go too high up a tree and realize it’s more challenging to get down, but they also realize they can do it.”

In addition to learning about plant and animal life, being outdoors also allowed the children to develop their mathematical and scientific thinking in a real-world context outside the classroom. In the garden, the preschoolers counted seeds and measured green beans before harvesting. They learned about spatial orientation as their teacher asked them to help her figure out how nine plants could fit into a square patch of soil. One student inferred that bugs don’t like the cold, because after spending a lot of time in the garden in the winter he noticed he didn’t see many bugs anymore.

Vandermaas-Peeler says the right adult guidance is crucial in helping children develop a sense of inquiry. In her research at Children First, teachers encouraged children to observe, question, predict, evaluate and compare as they noticed things in their everyday environments. Rather than asking questions with one correct response and providing answers, teachers afforded students the time to investigate and discover for themselves. “The questioning process is really important,” Vandermaas-Peeler says. “We need to support a learning process in which people develop the agency to ask questions and find evidence to answer them. They don’t look to others and they don’t just believe an opinion. They understand there are empirical ways to answer questions and we should search for the answers. That process is research and it’s fun.”

McClain and Vandermaas-Peeler’s research resulted in three publications, a book chapter and several presentations. The study was so robust that it counted for McClain’s master’s thesis in her doctoral program at the University of Tennessee. For Vandermaas-Peeler, the research sparked a new passion within her broader early childhood development work. She spent a semester in Denmark teaching a course on children in the natural world and continues to research children’s learning and behavior in outdoor contexts with other undergraduate students.

Making natural connections

While Vandermaas-Peeler’s research is rooted in developmental psychology, Morrison’s scholarship and teaching are more focused on practical applications in the classroom. When he arrived at Elon in 2013, he didn’t intend to incorporate environmental education into his teaching, but it happened organically as a result of his own experience. Morrison spent 11 years as a sixth grade English and social studies teacher in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He wasn’t required to connect his students with nature, but when he did, he recognized a distinct shift in their energy inside the classroom as well. “I wasn’t required to build a school garden. I wasn’t required to take my students outside,” Morrison says. “I was trying to give my students a different experience in school and cultivate some environmental values that were positive.”

M.Ed. students taking Instructional Technology in the Classroom, a summer course taught by Scott Morrison, utilize the Outdoor Classroom at Loy Farm to test methodology.

​When he left the classroom to pursue his doctorate, Morrison began researching the ways in which different environments influence how teachers teach and how students learn, even in schools where outdoor learning isn’t a focal point. He carried those values with him to Elon and joined the Sustainability Faculty Scholars program. He was challenged with integrating sustainability into his coursework, which ultimately led to the creation of three nature-focused courses taught entirely outside and an environmental education minor.

Morrison initially taught his environmental education course inside, but he realized a more hands-on way to teach his students about the importance of outdoor learning for children. He created an outdoor classroom at Loy Farm based on the forest school model, which originated in Denmark and prioritizes learning in natural spaces. “Being outside for an hour and 40 minutes makes [my students] feel different,” Morrison says. “They’re calmer and more relaxed, more energized, more focused. They’re actually reciting what the research says happens to people when they’re outside.”

The introduction of more outdoor learning-focused courses at Elon has also paved the way for undergraduate research opportunities. Morrison and a student are conducting a study at a Title I school in Burlington that incorporates some forest school practices into its curriculum for at least an hour a day. They are analyzing whether time spent outside has an impact on preschool children’s language development. Another recent study explored how elementary school students with autism respond to outdoor learning environments. After working with their teachers outside two to three times a week for several months, Morrison and Samantha Friedman ’18 found the children’s communication skills improved inside the classroom. “Nature does not care what socio-economic group you come from or what your ability levels are,” Friedman says. “When you’re outside, there are easy opportunities for scaffolding without alienating children who may need extra assistance.”

Through his research and teaching, Morrison has also seen a myriad of ways for teachers to start conversations with students about core subjects outdoors. For example, if a young student gathers a cluster of sticks, the teacher can ask them to count how many sticks they have or review the letters of the alphabet in the word stick. The key, Morrison says, is teachers embracing their own creativity to apply their learning objectives in different environments. He requires students in his environmental education course to create lessons that involve natural areas and a literacy, math, science or social studies component. “I’m trying to help them see the connections with how they can do interdisciplinary planning while they’re outside in a forested area,” Morrison says.

Igniting a spirit of inquiry

Despite the benefits their research indicates about outdoor learning, Vandermaas-Peeler and Morrison both say some obstacles are preventing the practice from becoming more widespread. One challenge is a lack of school resources. At schools in more urban areas without easy access to natural spaces, Vandermaas-Peeler urges teachers to bring the outdoors to their students. They can help children interact with potted plants in the classroom or take field trips to parks. “It’s not equivalent by any means, but it’s a good substitute,” Vandermaas-Peeler says.

​Even at schools that do have outdoor resources, Morrison says a culture of support is essential. Morrison and Amber Adams-Kuebler ’17 conducted research at a nearby elementary school with ample outdoor resources—outdoor classrooms, a nature trail, gardens, animal habitats—but they found the teachers rarely used them. Adams-Kuebler and Morrison surveyed the teachers and learned they felt connected to nature, valued environmental education for children and felt supported by their administration. But they also felt they didn’t have the expertise to use the resources and lacked time in their schedules amid the pressures of testing.

“They saw it as purely science-based, as something extra they had to tack onto their very busy schedule rather than something they could integrate into their course curriculum,” Adams-Kuebler says. Morrison hopes to mitigate that attitude by introducing environmental education practices while future teachers are still in college. “There might be barriers they perceive right now, but they’re actually not barriers,” Morrison says. “They can actually enhance the work that you do.”

Encouraging children to embrace the outdoors also requires a shift in mindset for parents who don’t prioritize it for a number of reasons, like a busy, inflexible schedule or an aversion to risk. In Vandermaas-Peeler’s experience, the best way to get people to care about the environment is to spend time outside when they are young with an adult who is passionate about all that outdoor spaces have to offer. 

Whether children are engaged in outdoor learning at school or not, parents can ignite their spirit of inquiry and wonder at home. “The connections between school and home are really important,” Vandermaas-Peeler says. “I think some parents fear that they don’t have all the answers to [their children’s] questions. We need to empower people to say it’s OK to not know the answers because you can look for them together.”