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“Outdoor Learning Is Going to Save the World”: The Prevalence of Nature-Based Education in Minnesota

Angela DeMarco at the outdoor preschool she owns in Rochester. Photo Sarah Whiting

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At the start of her career in early childhood education, Anna Dutke began noticing that when her students were outside, even for a brief moment of reading a story in the fresh air or going for a walk behind the playground, their engagement was different. They were more focused and relaxed, and any conflicts were easier to manage.

“There was something about it that caught my eye,” she says.

When Dutke transitioned to a role at the Prior Lake Savage Area Schools, she jumped at the opportunity to develop early childhood outdoor learning programming for the district. One of the early childhood centers had an outdoor space of a small field and courtyard, so she taught outside in the courtyard every day. The next year, she switched to another school that had access to 80 acres of forest, a creek, and two ponds. The year after that, she was back at the first school, but the courtyard had been closed off due to construction — so class was held in a drainage ditch surrounded by concrete.

“What stuck with me was that no matter what the space was, the outcomes were the same for the students in terms of their social emotional learning, the strengthening of the classroom community, and their authentic excitement for learning — they were coming to school with an excitement every day and couldn’t wait to explore and make discoveries in both those sites,” Dutke says.

Despite our harsh winters, Minnesota is home to the third-highest number of nature-based preschools in the U.S. — only Washington and California rank above. Nationally, the number has steadily been on the rise since 2010, and has grown exponentially since Covid.

In Minnesota, multiple types of programming have seen shifts into a nature-based model. To date, 13 public schools offer a nature-based option in Minnesota, which is unprecedented across the country. There are also family child care providers operating out of backyards, private schools partnered with nature centers and hobby farms, church-based programs that use nature-based pedagogy, and ECFE (early childhood family education) programs.

The Saint Paul–based Children and Nature Network tracks research on the physical and mental health benefits children receive from being outside. The organization was founded on the premise that in just a few decades, “childhood had moved indoors and children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world” — which has led to something they call “nature-deficit disorder.” The nonmedical diagnosis is a concept that physicians, educators, parents, and caregivers have used to advocate for equitable access to nature during childhood.

Nature-based education occurs when children are actively learning within the natural world. Nature-based preschools spend at least 70 percent of their time outdoors.

Dutke, and others, view the approach as a lightning-rod solution to many of the problems plaguing the current education system, including better support for students with special needs and diverse learning styles. Being outside means students are less likely to get overstimulated, and more able to develop independent interests through what they can witness and collect. Child development markers are still met, but lessons are integrated with the natural world.

“Traditional education has never found a way to truly serve all learners, and that’s evidenced by test scores,” Dutke says. “As children come to us with lots of different backgrounds and experiences, we can’t guarantee that everybody has learned or experienced the same thing. Traditionally, in early childhood education, we have curriculum based around apple orchards, farms, oceans, things like that. But not every child has had those experiences.

“In order to get every child engaged in learning, they have to have a personal connection with what they’re learning about. What happens in an outdoor program is children are all participating in a shared learning experience together.”

Kelly Kazeck works in the Early Learning Services Division at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). Previously, she was the early childhood program coordinator for Big Lake School District, where she collaborated with the city to start an outdoor program called “ECFE in the Park.” In May 2020, she transitioned into her role with MDE. Schools were grappling with new Covid protocols, and many were considering outdoor options.

At the same time, Kazeck says MDE was looking for proven strategies to help children and families dealing with trauma, especially after the murder of George Floyd. Nature-based education kept coming up.

With those two things in mind, Kazeck’s team used funding from a federal preschool development grant to create resources intended to help educators implement or expand outdoor programming with children of all ages, including a series of 13 webinars which are approved to count toward licensing credit for child care providers. In the past three years, they have received 3,600 views and Kazeck has logged over 1,600 hours of professional development for educators.

“What we hear from educators who take children outside [is that] the behavior problems are decreasing, which means it’s easier to focus on the things that they want to be focusing on. It’s helping them navigate social skills; there’s a strong community that’s built in outdoor learning programs,” Kazeck says.

“I joke with people [that] outdoor learning is going to save the world. It’s helping children learn how to regulate and build social connections and community, but it’s also helping them to build awareness of nature and how to care about the Earth.”

Support for Educators

In 2017 a group of nature-based early childhood educators formed Minnesota Early Childhood Outdoors (MnECO) as a volunteer-run network that connects educators who are shifting into nature-based learning. As the number of programs throughout the state grew, MnECO was looking at how to support teachers across the state on the local level. Laura Whittaker, a preschool teacher in Duluth, pitched the idea to create locally based networks that would mentor and support teachers under the umbrella of MnECO. The “Nest” program launched in spring 2023.

Anna Dutke is one of the co-founders of MnECO. She says the nature-based programs that exist as part of larger school systems are often run by a small number of people, sometimes just one individual. Child care providers often have small staffs. Nest acts as a way for educators to learn from one another across school lines.

Currently there are six Nest networks across multiple regions of Minnesota. This past January, Angela DeMarco, who runs Everwild Nature School in Rochester, hosted the first meeting of the Southeastern Minnesota Nest. Participants include educators from Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, a nature- based occupational therapist, and kindergarten teachers from two nearby public schools who recently started nature-based programming. They meet once a month to share curriculum ideas and tips for handling safety protocols outside and debrief about what has and has not been working. Another major topic is licensing.

“In Minnesota, we don’t have any specific outdoor- based licensing protocols for nature-based education,” explains Dutke. “So it takes a lot of work for child care providers to educate the licensing folks about what nature-based programs are, and how we ensure the safety of children.”

DeMarco’s Everwild school is currently licensed as a family child care provider, which limits its classroom size to around a dozen students. She said the licensor she worked with had never heard of a nature-based preschool.

Angela DeMarco helps students at Everwild Nature School feed Sophia the chicken her first earthworms. Photo Sarah Whiting

According to Natural Start Alliance, an organization that supports outdoor education programs throughout the country, 42 percent of nature preschools are not licensed, meaning they have to accept fewer children and operate for fewer hours. The traditional licensing model for U.S. preschools is still largely based on an indoor set-up (e.g. how many toys are available, how they are stored). If those requirements were updated, it would help bring more public funding into programming, which in turn would make the educational approach more financially accessible.

Other states have implemented nature-based specific licensing requirements, and Minnesota may be starting to move in that direction. Kazeck says an advisory group through the Children’s Cabinet is beginning conversations about retraining licensors. The state is also in the process of reviewing its Parent Aware Standards, and one of the proposed amendments is tied to promoting more time spent outside in early childhood programming.

“As those things are developed, and as these conversations happen, we’re going to see more and more focus on how we create a system that’s going to better support more outdoor and nature-based learning,” Kazeck says.

Kazeck’s primary focus at MDE is on workforce support. She says there is currently a concerning shortage of early childhood educators in the state. Her team is finding that as educators make the switch to outdoor learning, they stay in the profession longer.