Let’s go for a hike: Nature’s role in fostering preschoolers’ development
by Hannah Mills Mechler
“We’re going on a hike today to learn about science!” Ms. Gonzalez announces to her class. The 4-year-olds show excitement, some clapping their hands and others wiggling in their seats.
“When we’re on the hike, we’re going to pick up rocks and leaves that we find on the ground. After we gather them, we’ll come back to the classroom and look up their names.”
“Are we ready? Let’s line up, starting here at the door.” The children jump up from their seats, eager to begin their adventure outdoors, exploring.
Exploration in the outdoors can foster preschoolers’ inquiry and learning, which in turn promotes their development. Nature walks in particular provide opportunities to foster cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.
Walking a nature trail may prompt children to ask questions, such as how squirrels stay warm in winter or why some bushes grow red berries. The trail also provides many opportunities for teachers to call attention to specific items, such as rocks, logs, pine cones, and plants. A teacher then may relate an item to a curriculum unit or observe whether an item provokes children’s interest and merits further inquiry.
Bringing items back to the classroom science table gives children time to examine them in greater depth, identify their characteristics, and classify them by shape, size, color, and texture. Nature items can stimulate further research in books or on the Internet, or they can be used in other centers such as art, blocks, and dramatic play.
Exploration and experimentation
Jean Piaget (1964) indicated that experimentation promotes children’s cognitive development. Providing children with opportunities to participate in hands-on activities is essential for promoting their abilities to problem solve and reason.
During the preschool years, children tend to demonstrate characteristics of the preoperational stage of development. This stage emerges between the ages of 2 to 7 years, when children’s language development flourishes because of their interactions with others and experiences within their environments.
During this stage, children begin to display representational thought, or the ability to represent objects using symbols (Piaget 1964). For instance, children may use a blanket to represent the feeling of security. Children may start to understand that certain symbols have meaning in daily life, such as a street sign that means stop.
While on a nature walk, a teacher can foster representational thought by asking a question such as, “What do you think this bird nest does?” Children engage in abstract and representational thought when they connect the home of birds to a need for shelter in their natural habitat.
Cognitive development and problem solving
When teachers consider the preoperational stage of development and milestones that children accomplish during this stage, taking nature walks become even more important. Specifically, children talk with others while on a nature walk, thus fostering their development of language. Also, children may begin to associate symbols found in nature to actual meanings or representations of items. For example, children may see an ant pile and associate it with the concept of home and shelter.
Exploration in nature may promote children’s creativity, imagination, problem solving, critical thinking, and visual-spatial learning abilities (Nature Explore 2014). For instance, a teacher may ask children to form groups in which they collaborate and think abstractly about whether the angle of the sun may affect the growth of plants. “I wonder why there is green moss on one side of the rock, but not the other side?” Preschoolers may discuss possible answers as they talk with each other.
Once children return to the classroom, a teacher can provide picture books about plants and read about the growth of moss. Such reading may assist children with answering questions, such as the one posed above. Children tend to learn the best when they connect their hands-on experiences to new information.
While outside, preschoolers interact with each other and enhance social development. For instance, a child may ask another, “Can you please help me find a yellow and green leaf with smooth sides?” Posing this question to another child encourages cooperation as well as a sense of teamwork as these children search for the item.
Finding specific items not only promotes cognitive ability to label and classify but also bolsters the sense of collaboration and teamwork. As children gain experience interacting in groups, they may find it easier to work with others when they get older. Collaboration will also assist them in understanding others’ emotions.
Finding nature items and seeing insects, birds, and other living things can provide opportunities for emotional development. Finding a bird nest either in the tree or on the ground may generate feelings for the bird and its family, for example. A teacher can explain the importance of being gentle with nests because they are home to birds and their families.
Preschoolers tend to learn information the best when it relates to their own experiences. Therefore, a teacher might say, “We would want people to be careful with our toys and our houses, so it’s really important to care for others’ things too.” Or a teacher could explain, “Let’s look at but not touch this nest, so it does not come apart. I’m sure a bird would be sad it its home wasn’t there anymore.”
A teacher could continue by saying, “Think of how we would feel if someone took something of ours. It might make us sad or unhappy.” Labeling feelings such as “sad,” “unhappy,” and “afraid” helps preschoolers learn what emotions are and what they represent.
While on nature walks, preschoolers explore the environment and further their physical development. For instance, a teacher may ask preschoolers to search for small leaves with jagged edges within a safe area identified in advance. Children bend down, squat, and walk or run about as they search. Looking for leaves and touching leaves, sand, or soil promote children’s sensory development.
While engaged in nature activities, children develop fine-motor skill (the ability to manipulate small objects) as well as gross-motor skill (the act of moving large objects). For example, picking up leaves refines preschoolers’ fine-motor skills as they use their index finger and thumb. Walking down the trail or grasping large rocks enhances their gross-motor skills.
Suggestions for preschool teachers
Before beginning a nature walk, read a book about a topic that you anticipate finding outdoors. This will provide children with an introduction to the items, which may assist them with connecting what they see to the material presented in the book.
Take nature walks with children in safe areas, where trails are cleared for them to walk through. It’s a good idea to preview the trail to avoid ants, poison ivy, and other hazards.
While on nature walks, ask children open-ended questions (those that do not have “yes” or “no” responses). These questions will promote children’s abilities to think critically and problem solve. For instance, preschool teachers may ask children “How do you think rocks are formed?” After children respond to the questions, teachers may further apply their statements to books they read together as a class or art projects they work on together.
Always encourage preschoolers to ask questions about what they see or experience while on the trail. Asking questions is important for promoting their cognitive and social maturation. Answering their questions or encouraging them to suggest possible answers fosters abstract thinking and problem solving as well as vocabulary.
Provide preschoolers time to explore within nature, with close supervision. Hands-on experiences (such as collecting rocks, touching trees, or comparing leaves) promotes their sensory development, which will further encourage the growth and application of their cognitive skills.
Encourage collaboration while on nature walks. For instance, provide children with a project they can complete with another child. An example may be asking children to collect different sizes or colors of rocks. This collaboration can foster social and emotional development.
After taking nature walks, talk to children about what they saw outdoors. For example, if children saw a deer on a nature trail, teachers may extend the experience by talking about a deer’s habitat or the types of food deer eat, using a book that contains facts about the animal.
Nature walks offer excellent opportunities to enhance children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Aside from learning about the natural environment, children will enjoy exploring the outdoors and learn to appreciate nature’s beauty.
Nature Explore. 2014. Resource Guide: Nature for Children. Every Day. Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.
Piaget, J. 1964. Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2 (3), 176-186.
About the author
Hannah Mills Mechler is completing doctoral work in early childhood development and education at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. In addition to her coursework, Mills teaches child development and early education courses at TWU and Tarrant County Community College. Her research focuses on parenting, children’s attachment relationships, and social and emotional development. Mills has presented at local and regional conferences, and has experience as a preschool teacher.