Feature Story

October 2019

Photo from The Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center

Outdoor Learning in Public Schools

Amy Butler, Eliza Minnucci, and Natural Start Staff

As nature preschools and forest kindergartens continue to grow in popularity across the US, an increasing number of parents and educators are asking the question, “How can nature-based learning continue into elementary school?” While there isn’t any one answer to this question, we asked two veteran outdoor educators, Amy Butler and Eliza Minnucci, to facilitate small group discussions with Natural Start members on the topic. What was their biggest takeaway? This conversation is only beginning. “We need to keep doing this,” says Amy. There needs to be more opportunities for educators to build relationships, make connections, and be inspired. 

We asked you to share your goals and biggest questions related to outdoor learning in public schools. Below you'll find a summary of what we discussed and suggested resources from Amy and Eliza. We hope these resources spark future conversations, more collaboration, and move us closer to our common goal of ensuring that all children enjoy the benefits of nature-based education. 

What models exist for outdoor learning in public schools? 

There are many approaches to nature-based learning in schools and we encourage you to find what works best for you. Here are a few examples: 

Partnership between a local non-profit (such as a nature center or nature preschool) to bring a naturalist into the classroom to lead nature-based learning and play. 

  • The ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) program at North Branch Nature Center follows this model, which you can learn more about here.
  • ERAFANS (Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools) has a Forest Days program that follows this model. They are looking for additional schools to participate.

Classroom teachers plan and facilitate outdoor learning on or very near the school grounds with the support of their administration. This model has a wide range, from the occasional visit to a nearby natural area to routinely learning outdoors for a few hours or an entire day, and could happen once per week, or multiple times per week, or every day. 

  • Three educators with outdoor learning programs share their experiences in a Natural Start Alliance webinar, Nature Days in K-3 Classrooms. View the recording here. 
  • Eliza Minnucci, former kindergarten teacher and founder of ForestKinder, authored A Forest Days Handbook with her co-teacher, Megan Teachout. In the book, they answer frequently asked questions about choosing an outdoor classroom space, developing routines, building light infrastructure, and offer narrative examples of what a kindergarten Forest Day might look like. Get the handbook here. 
  • Amy Butler of North Branch Nature Center and Natalie Gaber led two interactive webinars, How to Start an Outdoor Classroom at Any School (Parts 1 & 2). Watch the recordings of Part 1 (finding your why, building alliances with administration and families, and how to find your space and place in nature) and Part 2 (safety, schedules and academic time, and gear). 

Classroom teachers plan and facilitate routine off-site nature-based field trips. For schools that aren’t in close proximity to a safe natural area, transporting students to an off-site location may be the best option. The costs are usually higher with this model (see example budget below), but for many schools, this option works. 

  • At the Brooklyn New School, Pre-K students take weekly trips to a nature play space in a city park. Outdoor education programs progress through Kindergarten Shore School, the First Grade Farm, and Second Grade Young Naturalists. Bill Fulbrecht (program coordinator for Forest Pre-K and Kindergarten Shore School) keeps a blog where you can learn more about Brooklyn New School's programs. 

The level of engagement within a school district, or even within a single school also has a significant range. While some schools have one or two teachers who participate in outdoor learning, others have a school-wide investment in outdoor learning, including professional development in nature-based education for teachers. No matter the model, ongoing professional development should be built in to your plan to ensure safe, effective, and inclusive learning practices.


How much does it cost to operate an outdoor learning program in a school? How are these programs funded?


From hiring additional staff, to purchasing the appropriate gear, to planning time to ensure a safe experience for teachers and students, outdoor learning has costs. Eliza Minnucci shared the following slide with a few examples of real budgets from public schools with Forest Day programs. 




Identifying funding sources for this does take work, but we’ve pulled together some ideas to get you started. Amy suggests thinking locally and asking, “Who are your local nonprofits who are advocating for children and the health of children?” Consider what matters most to the potential funder you approach. Are they interested in the therapeutic and social-emotional benefits of nature-based learning? Do they care most about the physical health benefits? Find out what their institutional mission is and focus your proposal on how funding nature-based learning can support their goals. Below are a few ideas, but be prepared to think outside the box. 



Getting Started

Ready to get started? We’ve outlined a few resources below to help you make the case for nature-based learning. 

Making the Case

  • eeRESEARCH- Free access to the combined research collections of both Children & Nature Network and NAAEE in one, user-friendly online portal. Browse research articles, summaries, and syntheses, or refine your search to fit your interests.
  • Research Analysis: The Benefits of Environmental Education for K-12 Students- Experts at Stanford University systematically searched the academic literature and analyzed 119 peer-reviewed studies published over a 20-year period that measured the impacts of environmental education for K-12 students. 
  • NAAEE’s K-12 Environmental Education: Guidelines for Excellence- These guidelines provide students, parents, caregivers, educators and others a roadmap to achieving environmental literacy by setting expectations for fourth (age 10), eighth (age 14) and twelfth grade (age 18) students and outlining a framework for effective and comprehensive environmental education programs and curricula.
  • Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice Guidebook- The Guidebook represents the combined expertise of professionals across the field of nature-based education, and describes how nature-based educators offer programs that are safe, effective, and inclusive.
  • Forest Days Evaluation Report- Better understand what Forest Days programs look like in different schools, what their benefits are, and what challenges and obstacles they encounter in implementation.
  • The Best Day Ever: Forest Kindergartens in Vermont- This short film takes you outside, into the forest classrooms of two Vermont schools where students are rediscovering joy and wonder through the experience of playing in nature.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and we encourage you to check out additional resources from a few of our friends:


We’ll leave you with this final note from Eliza… 

Think about what you already have to work with and ask yourself, “What are the sparks of enthusiasm that already exist in your area?” Reflect on your strengths and tap into them. Do you know at least one parent who is supportive of nature-based learning in your school system? Maybe you know an educator who is interested. Or perhaps there is a fine piece of wild space nearby that students can explore. Whoever or whatever comes to mind, write that name down. Build off of that. To get where you want, you need to start where you are.

View the recording of the discussion Eliza faciliated below. 


Do you have an idea of how to keep the conversation going? Email us at info@naturalstart.org and let us know what you think.