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Incorporating Environmental Education into Your ECE Curriculum

Apr 06, 2023    |   Children’s BooksOutdoor & Sensory Play

Playing in nature is a joyful activity that engages young children’s interest and curiosity. Incorporating experiences with nature into an early learning curriculum is often referred to as Early Childhood Environmental Education (ECEE), and its goal is to give little ones the opportunity to follow their natural sense of inquiry to discover the world around them. In this article, we explore environmental education in early childhood, highlighting its benefits for young children’s learning and development and the opportunities it offers to support the wellbeing of our planet. 

What is Early Childhood Environmental Education (ECEE)?

ECEE refers simply to the practice of incorporating learning about nature and the environment into an early learning curriculum. In its guidelines for early childhood environmental education, the North American Association for Environmental Education provides this description of ECEE: “Environmental education in early childhood includes the development of a sense of wonder; appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the natural world; opportunities to experience the joy of closeness to nature; and respect for other creatures. It also includes the development of problem-solving skills and the development of interest and appreciation of the world around us.” 

With little ones, environmental education might be as simple as climbing a tree, running on the grass in bare feet, digging in the soil to find worms, or watching birds move about in the trees. The heart of ECEE is encouraging children to explore and engage in meaningful experiences with nature that help them learn about the environment and develop a connection with our planet. 

What are the Benefits of Environmental Education?

Benefits for Children

Spending time in nature has a wide range of benefits for young children’s learning, growth, and overall well-being. 

  • Physical Health & Development: While playing outside, children run, climb, and jump, all of which support physical development and strengthen gross motor skills. A research brief from The Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University explains that “children engage in more vigorous activity outdoors than indoors…lush environments support increased levels of physical activity of preschool children by motivating free-play and hands-on learning experiences.” The brief also describes some of the health benefits of time in nature for young children, including a boost to their immune systems and a reduced risk of asthma and other allergies.

  • Cognitive Development & Learning: Stanford University recently conducted a study of the impact of environmental education in early learning programs, and found that ECEE is a catalyst for: “increased learning in a range of areas such as mathematics, science, language, and literacy.”

  • Relationship Building & Social Development: Katie K. Lockwood, MD, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains, “Outdoor play helps children grow socially, helping them to develop healthy ways of forming friendships, responding to physical interaction, and using their imaginations to entertain each other…It helps them solve problems, build relationships within their peer group and gain a respect for nature.”

Benefits for our Communities

When children engage in outdoor play and natural learning, there are long-lasting benefits for our planet. Young children who develop a relationship with nature at a young age grow up with a sense of care and connection to our planet.

In its report, Guidelines for Early Childhood Environmental Education for Excellence, the North American Association for Environmental Education describes the way this sense of connection develops: “Children are watching plants and animals change through their life cycles, and learning respect for the natural world and living things. Children who respect the environment feel an emotional attachment to the natural world and deeply understand the link between themselves and nature will become environmentally literate citizens.”

How do I Incorporate ECEE into my Curriculum?

Incorporating environmental education into your curriculum is actually very simple because it requires almost no set up! It is as simple as getting outside and encouraging children to observe and explore.

Stanford University’s study on environmental education found that children can benefit from a wide range of activities that involve nature, “from highly active and immersive (e.g., hiking outdoors), to reflective (e.g., creating drawings), to analytical and synthetic (e.g., guided in-class discussions).”

A few ideas and activities for your curriculum are included in the list below.

  • Nature Walk: Getting outside for a nature walk is an easy activity that requires no preparation. It also gives children an opportunity to experience nature in an authentic way as they observe plants and animals in their local community. For added learning on your nature walk, create a scavenger hunt that encourages children to pay close attention to all of the different sights and sounds they encounter.

  • Nature Sketching: Bring a pad of paper and coloring materials outside and encourage children to draw pictures of the different items that they see. They might choose to sketch a bug, a tree, a flower, or other items. For deeper exploration, offer magnifying glasses so children can see the details of the items they are sketching. For more activities that connect art and nature, you might enjoy this G2K article from the archives: Nature-Based Activities to Enjoy Outdoors.

  • Stories about Nature: Reading books about nature can help children to better understand the environment around them, and can spark engaging conversations about our planet. Enjoy the stories indoors or take them outside to experience story time in nature. A few fun options for your classroom are included below.

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