Young children’s contributions to sustainability

The influence of nature play on curiosity, executive function skills, creative thinking, and resilience

Summary

Nature play can contribute dispositions and skills relevant to sustainability

North American guidelines for environmental education at the early childhood level emphasize the importance of using the natural world for open-ended exploration, discovery, and play.  The focus on nature play as an essential component of this approach is not without criticism, especially from the international community. Criticisms about this approach generally focus on the need to address education for sustainability, as it’s believed that nature play without this focus will lack “the transformative power necessary for meaningfully contributing to sustainability issues.” Children attending nature preschools spend a great deal of time engaged in nature play “which is defined as freely chosen, unstructured, and open-ended playful interactions with and in nature.” The aim of the current research was to explore the influence of nature preschools on four outcomes relating to both sustainability and early childhood education goals: curiosity, executive function, creative thinking, and resilience. This research addressed these desired outcomes through four pilot studies, with each study focusing on just one of the outcomes.

Two groups of children participated in this research: one group attending a nature preschool; the other group attending high quality, play-based, non-nature preschools. All of the participants completed pretests at the beginning of the academic year and posttests toward the end of the academic year. The tests measured growth in the four constructs: curiosity, executive function, creative thinking, and resilience. Results were used to compare growth among nature preschool participants with participants in non-nature preschools. The number of participants varied for each pilot study, with the number in the nature preschool group varying from 34 to 78 and the number in the non-nature preschool group varying from 11 to 44.

Results of Study 1, which focused on curiosity, found that children in the nature preschool group were significantly more likely to demonstrate a higher, more mature form of curiosity than children in the non-nature preschool group. This higher level of curiosity “is valued not only from a child development perspective, but also valued in terms of contributions in a sustainability context.”  Study 2 , which focused on executive function skills, found no significant difference between the nature and non-nature participants. However, both groups exceeded what would be expected due to cognitive maturation of typically developing children. Results of Study 3, which focused on creative thinking, showed significantly more growth in the nature preschool group than in the non-nature preschool group. Because there were only eleven children in the non-nature group, results of the nature preschool group were also compared to published data from a fine arts-based preschool program implemented at six sites. Results of the nature preschool group showed significantly more growth in several aspects of creativity than in the fine arts-based programs, though children in the fine arts program exceeded the performance of children in the nature-based program in one other area of creativity. Results of Study 4 showed that the nature preschool group made significantly greater growth in protective factors relating to resilience than children in the non-nature preschool group.

These results suggest that nature play can positively influence curiosity, creative thinking, resilience, and executive function skills. As these dispositions and skills are needed for environmental problem-solving and policy making, the argument can be made that nature play can make a positive contribution to sustainability. As stated by the authors, “These pilot studies offer reasons for not abandoning nature play in the pursuit of sustainability.”

Citation

Ernst, J., Burcak, F., (2019). Young children’s contributions to sustainability: The influence of nature play on curiosity, executive function skills, creative thinking, and resilience. Sustainability, 11(15)

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