Defining the Terms in Nature-based Early Childhood Education

Nature permeates virtually every aspect of a nature-based early childhood education program.
— Rachel A. Larimore

There are many terms used in the world of nature-based early childhood education. Below is a brief description of how we define various terms.


Simply put, it's education for young children (0-8 years old) where learning occurs in the context of nature. There are many program models that are considered nature-based early childhood education (NbECE) such as nature-based preschools (also called nature preschools), forest preschools (also called forest kindergartens), nature-based kindergartens, nature-based first grade, and so forth. In all of these programs nature is at the core of the curriculum, there is extensive daily outdoor time over the course of a school year, and teachers implement high-quality early childhood practices as well as high quality environmental education practices. In other words, nature and the outdoors permeate virtually every aspect of a NbECE program. So, while the model or program structure may vary there is a common approach to teaching children--nature pedagogy.

Keep in mind that integration of nature into early childhood education is on a continuum from no nature integration to the other end of the continuum where nature is infused in all parts of the program. A program that fully integrates nature blurs the lines between the indoor and outdoor space, outdoor time is extensive and often the first activity of the day, natural materials are found throughout the indoor space, and classroom activities are based on seasonal happenings. This full integration of nature is NbECE in its purest form. Our mission at Samara Early Learning is to help move early childhood programs away from the “no nature” end of the continuum and closer to a full nature-based approach.


Nature-based preschools, sometimes simply referred to as nature preschools, are licensed early childhood programs for 3-5 year olds where at least 30% of the class day is held outside, nature is infused into all aspects of the program, and the pedagogy emphasizes inquiry-based learning through play and hands-on discovery. This means the curriculum is driven by nature (i.e., the seasonal happenings), nature is integrated into the indoor spaces, and the play areas have an overall appearance of a natural area rather than structured play equipment. Nature-based preschools are rooted in high quality early childhood practices, which means implementing developmentally appropriate practices related to the physical environment as well as teacher-child interactions. In addition, nature-based preschools value stewardship of the natural world, which is demonstrated through teacher knowledge of the local flora and fauna, but also modeling and teaching the children appropriate ways to interact with the natural world. 

The first nature-based preschool opened in 1967 in New Canaan, Connecticut. There are now more than 250 preschools that self-identify as being nature-based. (A list of current nature-based preschools is maintained by the Natural Start Alliance.) Our goal at Samara Early Learning is for that number to grow into the hundreds and eventually thousands or programs that are implementing high-quality nature-based administrative and teaching practices! 


Forest preschools, sometimes called forest kindergartens, are very similar to nature-based preschools in that they typically serve 3-5 year olds. In a forest preschool, however, 70-100% of the day is spent outdoors. As a result, the indoor space is typically less developed and primarily serves as a shelter from inclement weather. Like nature-based preschools, nature is infused into all aspects of the program, and the pedagogy emphasizes inquiry-based learning through play and hands-on discovery.


Any student or parent that experiences a nature-based preschool inevitably wants to attend a nature-based kindergarten (and first grade, second grade…). Like nature-based preschools, the students have daily outdoor time as part of their curriculum. Nature is also brought into the classroom through physical materials, but also in the selection of reading materials, topics for small group activities, and so forth. In other words, nature is infused into all aspects of the classroom and serves as a tool to achieve learning outcomes.