by Meghan Fitzgerald
Sometimes, you come across the work of someone in the same field as your own and you’re immediately in awe of what they’ve done. Then, you are lucky enough to be introduced to that person, and you find you are enamored with who they are. That’s how we feel about Nancy Rosenow and her work with Nature Explore.
Rosenow is the executive director of the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. Through the research work the foundation funded, Rosenow saw first hand how important it was to reconnect kids to nature, and that’s how Nature Explore was born.
Nature Explore has been finding ways to integrate nature exploration into early childhood programs across North America with their outdoor classrooms. We had the chance to talk to Rosenow -- a true pioneer in the outdoor movement -- to learn more about the work she does, and we were left nothing short of inspired.
Read on for a chance to get to know Rosenow and Nature Explore better.
You’ve been leading the charge in outdoor education and nature play for many years. What improvements have you seen?
We’re very gratified to see that awareness is growing all the time, and that people are starting to understand the importance of connecting with nature. Years ago we were the only people doing presentations about kids and nature at early childhood conferences -- we felt like the lone wolves -- but over time more people started talking about it and picking up the same message.
I think people are hearing the message, and I think parents are hearing the message. And now there are also organizations like Tinkergarten that are specifically providing something to support parents in this mission, which is really exciting to see.
What changes would you like to see?
We would love for this to be available to every child, everywhere. But it’s going to take so many pieces to come together to make sure that every child has a chance to grow up this way. We have, however, seen some great progress and a lot of partnerships forming. For example, we just partnered with Los Angeles Unified School District -- a lot of people in education look to them to see what they’re doing -- which has made a commitment to add Nature Explore classrooms to all of their early childhood centers over time.
What led you to pursue the work of elevating the importance of outdoor, nature play?
We were meant to grow up this way -- to be in the natural world. It’s what people talk about as free-range childhood.
Growing up, I was able to just play outside and explore, without people really knowing where I was. People today just don’t do that. Even I didn’t do that as a parent. I didn’t realize it at the time, the subtle changes in my own children’s childhood, but they didn’t grow up in a neighborhood that allowed for a free-range childhood. And they didn’t have woods around their early childhood programs. While they were good programs, they didn’t have a lot of outdoor time built in. It was all plastic and metal. I think this move away from nature just started happening, and we adults didn’t realize it was happening.
It’s a different world today, so we adults have to be intentional about making sure we’re bringing nature to our children. We just have to provide those experiences in a different way. That’s the work of Nature Explore and Tinkergarten: to bring back something that used to happen really naturally, to be sure children today aren’t missing out on connecting with nature.
What led to the creation of Nature Explore?
It began years ago while doing research with the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. We were working with a university to see what was going on with children in regards to the rise of behavioral disorders, like ADHD, aspergers, and autism. We realized that it kept pointing back to kids being indoors more and having lots of screen time, which meant less time outdoors and fewer opportunities to do visual spatial work.
Many children are visual spatial learners; they need to work with three-dimensional objects, which are found in abundance in the natural world. Kids need to be building or seeing how things work, they need to be moving their bodies a lot. When kids are not spending a lot of time freely exploring in nature, and they’re just stuck indoors with a lot of screen time, we as the adults in their lives are not giving children what they really need to be learning. This shift indoors was very detrimental to some kids.
We developed the Nature Explore natural classrooms to help kids reconnect with nature. We did a lot of research working with landscape architects and doing multidisciplinary research to help children meet these needs in our classrooms. We saw huge changes in children; children were able to come to these natural, outside spaces and be able to learn in a way that was right for them. They were able to be successful in the outdoor classrooms in a way they couldn’t be in their indoor classes.
Nature Explore often talks about the importance of whole-child learning. What exactly is that, and how can we offer that to our children?
As adults, we tend to cut up learning really artificially, like “now, we’re doing math, and now we’re doing science,” but if we let children learn the way they learn best -- outdoors, exploring -- these things are all happening together in really organic ways. Outdoor classrooms provide chances for whole-child learning.
Whole-child learning is learning that comes from the best part of us as human beings. It’s the part that comes with a sense of wonder, excitement, and awe. When we take that out of learning and reduce it to sitting at a desk all day, taking tests and getting numbers to tell us if we’re ok, that’s how we kill the joy of learning for kids.
And it’s good for teachers and students alike. Even teachers talk about what a pleasure it is to experience children learning this way.
You’ve written a number of books on the importance of nature. One that really resonates with us is Heart-Centered Teaching. In it, you write, “I believe helping children find out who they are and what they have to contribute to the world is the most crucial work we educators can do. And I believe connections with the natural world can provide strength and inspiration for our personal journeys… adult and child alike." This rings true for us at Tinkergarten, where our work is focused just as much on the adults and caregivers as it is on the child. Can you share examples of how you’ve seen connections with the natural world impact adults as well?
One thing that I realized doing this work is that I needed to talk more about the social and emotional parts of this for the adults, not just children. If we allow ourselves -- the adults -- to keep connected to nature, there’s a lot we can bring to our own work as a parent or teacher. Teachers and parents have told us that it makes a big difference in how they’re really able to find joy in working with children.
Sometimes our society sends us a mistaken message that it’s selfish to think about ourselves, that we have to be selfless and only think about our children’s needs. But, really that couldn’t be more opposite of what’s true. We really do have a responsibility to tend to our own gardens first, because if we’re just full of weeds, we have nothing to give to others.
We have to support ourselves first in order to be able to give to children. It’s taking time to be with ourselves -- that’s why we call it “heart-centered teaching” -- and to think about what we need to keep our buckets filled and keep the wonder for the world within ourselves.