By Rachel Weingart
From a sea of masks to a sea of nervously smiling faces, much has changed these past few years. Education has always been an important part of our society, but the pandemic pushed us to find new, innovative ways of educating ourselves and our children. Hugs and high fives were exchanged for waving hands and a few brave elbow bumps. Social distancing was a must. Brightly colored crayons and glitter glue activities with a friendly teacher were abruptly exchanged for Zoom lessons. Much of the in-person interactions so crucial to our development were replaced by blurry screens, delayed audio, and family pets stealing the show. It’s far from an ideal way to learn, especially during a child’s formative years.
What was true for the pre-K crowd was true for college students as well. Sitting in my archaic apartment building, painted in garish orange with accents of gray, my peers and I experienced how higher education was transformed by the pandemic’s forced virtual learning; previously in-person laboratory courses were exchanged for recorded YouTube videos. The result? Poorer student performance and mental health crises across the board.
The historic Covid pandemic illuminated the cracks in our education system. It’s no surprise that a global crisis would cause significant decreases in learning and test scores over the pandemic’s three main years. But when the pandemic ended, we collectively assumed that the best course of action would be to go back to our brick and mortar classrooms. But what if keeping education indoors isn’t the best answer? While major research focused on the impact of Covid on traditional classrooms, little attention has been paid to learning outcomes in nontraditional spaces both pre- and post-pandemic.
To explore the post-pandemic landscape for education, I spoke with Julia Kolt, M.Ed., to hear her firsthand experiences teaching both in a traditional, city classroom and at a suburban, nature-based preschool. I listened to her stories while strolling through the Chicago Botanic Garden’s prairie and woodland areas. We would stop conversing every so often to point out and observe the wildlife — as natural learners ourselves.
While she would go on to teach in a nature-based classroom, Kolt’s career in education started as a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) right before the pandemic struck the United States. During her first semester of teaching in autumn 2019, Kolt and her fellow teachers spent 11 days on strike. On top of that rough start, her school was forced to be fully remote in March 2020 due to the pandemic, where she would remain fully remote until April 2021. At that time, she returned in-person, where she taught half of her students remotely and the other half simultaneously in her classroom, personally experiencing up close how virtual learning impacted children. Kolt commented on how difficult it was to obtain “hands-on learning resources” that would be meaningful for students both at home and in-person. She constructed activities separate from the CPS curriculum to create more impactful learning opportunities, “often raising money through GoFundMe to purchase materials such as playdough to make landforms, magnifying lenses to look at insects, and owl pellets to dissect.” Even though CPS only funded materials directly related to the assigned curriculum, Kolt fought to make sure her fourth-graders had formative learning experiences. She went above and beyond, prioritizing the educational quality of her classroom over strictly adhering to the assigned curriculum.
But it wasn’t enough. The problem was, she decided, her students had no opportunity to venture outside the classroom and overbuilt recess area, dominated by blacktop. As a result, she explained, “students reported they were often afraid or uninterested in the natural world.” There was one boy whose love of the outdoors was cemented through family camping trips in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula “where he learned how to survive in the wilderness with his family and Mother Nature as his guide.” But the rest of her students were repulsed by greenspaces, and eventually Kolt knew she was ready for a nontraditional educational space. So she took a new job as a Nature Preschool teacher at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she is able to enrich the lives of children through daily, direct access to nature.
As a Lead Teacher in Early Childhood Programs and the Nature Preschool at the Garden, Kolt brings her science knowledge from her B.S. in Biology to provide meaningful science-based nature education. She was thrilled about this shift from teaching in a traditional classroom to a nature-based program where developmental play in the Garden’s natural spaces is at the program’s center: “We spend 80 to 100% of our day outdoors, encouraging natural exploration and developing grit.” That’s a sharp contrast to the measly amount of recess time her fourth-graders spent outside.
I was curious about the evidence behind nature-based educational spaces being a better alternative to traditional education. For generations, we’ve known that playing outside is important, but scientific data on the topic has yet to meaningfully capture public attention. For a researcher’s view, I turned to Andrea Faber Taylor, a Teaching Assistant Professor at the U of I, to learn more about the benefits of nature so I could better understand why nature-based education programs are superior to traditional classrooms. As I sat down to speak with her, my eyes were drawn to a poster of an American Buffalo standing among flowering prairie plants: a piece of the past rural Illinois landscape that made me nostalgic for a time long before industrial America.
Throughout our interview, Faber Taylor shared her holistic, community-oriented view of nature. She emphasized that the restorative power of greenspace isn’t just a way to enrich our adult lives; it begins at the early stages of our development. Scientists have long known that increasing connection to nature through greenspace benefits human health. The definition of greenspace is incredibly variable, which is part of why communicating the science behind its benefits can be so challenging. Faber Taylor believes greenspace is more than just the color green: “Nature is more than plant material; there’s rocks, water, soil.” She stresses that greenspaces must be “low in human-made materials” to create a “less built” feeling. Human-created elements such as concrete should be a small percentage of the landscape compared to plant material and natural elements, such as rocks and waterfalls.
How can we find greenspaces? At the macro-level, scientists can locate greenspaces by recording the number of green pixels in a satellite image. Since many of these pixels are inaccessible natural spaces, there’s a push to increase greenspace access. “A person might live near acres and acres of wetland,” Faber Taylor explained, “but they’re not experiencing it because they can only stand on the edge and see a small amount of it. It’s not a space they can pass through or recreate in.” Spaces like this improve ecosystem health but don’t have the same restorative benefits for people as accessible greenspaces.
Our conversation progressed to discussing the specific educational benefits greenspaces provide. Simon Nicholson’s landmark book Theory of Loose Parts was among the first to define the relationship between childhood cognitive development and greenspace. Nicholson expands the definition of greenspace beyond parks and gardens to include outdoor spaces where children can interact with sticks, rocks, pine cones, and leaves. Nicholson discovered that playing with “loose parts” is a foundational part of cognitive development. Children engage in self-guided learning when playing with the odd detritus of nature. In a regimented world filled with highly engineered playgrounds, Nicholson urges us to reexamine our outdoor educational spaces to include plentiful loose parts.
In my interview with her, Kolt spoke avidly about how teachers can introduce nature to children. Playing outside with peers allows children to problem-solve, teach, and learn from each other. As such, nature education programs foster more teamwork and collaborative activities to solve the unique challenges posed by learning outside. In addition to group learning, Kolt adds that, while supervised safely from afar, “Children benefit from quiet, solo time while outdoors, as they are able to think deeply, explore their own curiosities, and experience what it is like to be alone with nature.” Connections can also be formed through hands-on lessons, such as those about local species. “A teacher could introduce bird songs to students and help them to memorize the call of a black-capped chickadee” which sounds like “cheeseburger,” Kolt explains. From then on, when children are outdoors and hear the “cheeseburger” call, “either with others or alone, they will be able to identify the bird and feel a sense of belonging in nature.” The consequences of this, as she describes, cannot be understated. “Because the child has learned to listen and identify, they may feel less fear or trepidation while spending time outdoors,” Kolt says, contrasting her earlier description of her fourth-graders as “afraid or uninterested in the natural world.”
The proof of the power of connections to nature are even seen on paper, since access to school greenspaces also results in better test scores, even when accounting for income disparities. This is especially important since the pandemic caused a rapid, national decline in test scores, meaning that nature-based education programs can serve as a meaningful way to help increase national test scores in the wake of the pandemic. We all want to ensure everyone has a high-quality education, and access to nature is the missing puzzle piece.
There have been some shifts toward successfully incorporating greenspaces into traditional school settings. Faber Taylor shared the story of a greenspace program designed by her landscape architect friends Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco at North Carolina State. Moore and Cosco design greenspaces for early child care centers, and “succeeded in altering the legislation in North Carolina so that all early child care centers must have an outdoor space accessible to the children during the day.” These spaces are mandated to incorporate natural elements, so they won’t just be composed of a grassy lawn without natural “loose parts.” The legislation stipulates that educators must use the greenspace for daily nature play activities. This law could serve as a model for future legislation to increase children’s access to greenspace.
At the community level, another way to increase greenspace access is through the Natural Learning Initiative. Faber Taylor explained how this initiative works to provide research summaries in layman’s terms, sharing how greenspace positively impacts development. A program like this could be additionally helpful to educators without a natural science background looking to implement hands-on, nature-based learning activities. Faber Taylor and her colleagues have conducted studies about physical activity and found that children become more active in greenspaces compared to built playgrounds or blacktop spaces. Since exploring greenspaces is the key to nurturing our health and wellbeing, it is especially important during our formative years.
For all these isolated examples of progress in nature education, there are many barriers to American children accessing greenspace. Faber Taylor described how her children’s recess time was limited to the blacktop. Teachers “did not want to deal with the complications of wet shoes, any potential mud.” While weather can be a concern, changing outdoor conditions can actually provide meaningful learning opportunities. For Kolt, “At Nature Preschool, we are able to use what is going on outdoors as our guide, often switching lesson plans or activity ideas based on student interest or natural phenomena that is currently ongoing.” Since her lessons already structure themselves around seasonal changes, inclement weather conditions are treated as just one more seasonal phenomenon for her preschoolers to learn about. “For example, if it begins to rain during our lesson on butterflies, we may take a short hike in our rain coats and boots to discover what insects do during rainy weather,” Kolt explains. “We may even go visit our Butterflies & Blooms exhibit here at the Garden, to see the butterflies in action during the rain.” In a traditional classroom setting, this flexibility and access to multiple facilities are simply not possible. This same flexibility made it vastly easier for the Nature Preschool to continue safely operating during the pandemic while traditional school systems floundered.
Knowing all of this, I wondered why we haven’t done more to embed the importance of greenspaces into the common consciousness and into school curricula. In Faber Taylor’s opinion, it is because there are more pressing traditional concerns, such as school budgets and the emphasis on test scores. “Schools are always strapped for funding. And there’s just a lot of pressure. They’re getting evaluated on test scores, so they’re going to put all of their funding into the traditional ways of trying to boost scores.” For her, the organic approach to test scores is to give children time to rest their attention throughout the day by giving them a more supportive environment that includes nature. But, she conceded, getting away from worksheets and fancy technology is “a hard sell.”
Both educators I spoke with believe that early and repeated exposure to nature, especially during early childhood, is of great importance. In the words of Kolt, “Giving children the opportunity to learn, play, make mistakes, and explore their curiosities outdoors” is essential to solve the lack of nature education in our society. In situations where those opportunities are not possible, Kolt suggests advocating for the use of federal funding in public schools to go toward outdoor education programs. The Nature Preschool received funding from the Illinois State Board of Education which is used to help provide resources and scholarships for families with financial need. This can help nature education programs become more accessible to all families, regardless of their economic status.
So, what can we do if people are interested in nature education but feel that it’s a financially irresponsible pursuit? Increasing access to greenspaces and overall knowledge of the natural world can help us prepare for the next global crisis. Kolt firmly believes that “time spent outdoors is a strong introduction to all scientific fields, such as physics (leaves falling), chemistry (pond water solutions), meteorology, biology, ecology, and even mathematics (noticing patterns in nature).” Thus, increasing scientific literacy and nature education go hand in hand. “By piquing a child’s interest at an early age and exposing them to different scientific topics, they will have a stronger understanding of the natural world and how it works,” she says. This understanding can improve scientific literacy, which can help children prepare for a world of pandemics and climate change, and envision a more sustainable future.
Returning to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I stroll past rolling hills and lilypad-filled shorelines to watch screeching red-winged blackbirds peeking out from spindly, native prairie grasses. We cannot let nature’s rich, living tapestry fade into the pages of an archaic textbook. The benefits of greenspaces are abundantly clear: Depriving anyone of them means denying a basic human need. With tall, brick buildings peeking out from behind the greenery, I close my eyes and revel in the feeling of being cradled by the natural world. The contrast of greens helps me breathe as I am reminded that I can escape the oppressive walls of industrial society to take time for myself. I am reminded that I am alive, entangled in the ecosystem.
Nature-based education ensures children retain a life-long love for and desire to protect the planet. Covid has caused many irrevocable changes, but we can ensure that the pandemic’s damage to our already fragile education system is not permanent. A life without access and connection to nature is not a life worth living. We can start by teaching the kids about it.
About the Author …
Rachel Weingart completed her B.S. in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and received the Certificate in Environmental Writing in May 2023. Rachel currently works as an Environmental Laboratory Technician in the Organics Extraction department of an analytical chemistry laboratory.
This article was written for ESE/ENGL 498, the CEW capstone course.