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Nature schools emerge as vital education option

 The creek serves as a learning conduit on a daily basis at Mud Club Nature Preschool.
Mud Club Nature Preschool
The creek serves as a learning conduit on a daily basis at Mud Club Nature Preschool.

The educational benefit of spending time in nature has been a topic of debate since the early 1900s, when pioneering educator Maria Montessori advocated for child-led learning that embraced the outdoors as a vital component. Today, as rates of anxiety, depression, obesity, myopia, and ADHD skyrocket among children, educators, psychologists, and physicians are taking a second look at the outdoors as a panacea for what ails us.

Regionally, this trend is apparent in a variety of ways. Nature schools are emerging in and around Lewisburg. Workshops introduce the concept of outdoor learning to the public. College courses teach the value of the outdoors to the next generation of educators. As outdoor learning slowly makes its way into our education system, it is embraced by some as implicitly as the "three R's."

What is it?

The healing power of nature can be traced back to Hippocrates and his perspective that “nature is the physician of disease,” cite Eva M. Selhub, MD, and Alan C. Logan, ND, in their book, Your Brain on Nature (2012). The get-outdoors movement as a whole encompasses a wide spectrum of ideas and activities, at the heart of which is the way children are educated.

Nature schools build on the idea that children fare better when they move more, get more sunlight, and breathe more fresh air. In short, they can be defined as a space where Mother Nature is the classroom and children learn through unstructured outdoor play.

“Nature preschools are not simply unrestricted play,” underscores Susan Chlebowski, a Certified Nature Based Educator based in New Berlin. “They are sometimes called ‘invisible classrooms’ because the children are free to explore, play, move, and discover, learning in ways that are invisible to children, and often to observers. Teachers are considered facilitators and learning guides who stand back and navigate the nuanced interactions that support a child’s developing competencies.”

Empirical findings

Many early childhood experts and psychologists have studied what happens when children spend time in nature. And what happens when they don’t. In parts of East Asia, rates of myopia, or nearsightedness, in teenagers surpass 90%, according to Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix (2017). Scientists once attributed myopia to book-reading, she says, but it appears to be closely linked to time spent indoors, away from daylight. The sun awakens the retina’s dopamine receptors, which control the shape of the developing eye. In the absence of sunlight, the lens of the eye does not develop properly, resulting in nearsightedness.

According to an October 2022 article in The Atlantic chronicling the increased rates of myopia worldwide, in the United States 42% of 12-to-54-year-olds were nearsighted in the early 2000s, up from 25% in the 1970s. Chlebowski cites two more reasons to immerse children in nature: development of proprioception and vestibular senses essential to healthy growth. Children develop their proprioception sense through what occupational therapists call “heavy work:” pushing, pulling, lifting heavy things, raking leaves, digging.

Sensory receptors in our joints, muscles, and ligaments help us regulate how much force is needed to complete tasks, like holding a duckling without crushing it.

“Children with poor proprioception tend to be clumsy, and are more susceptible to falls, fractures, dislocations, and injuries. They may have a hard time regulating how much force they use, are more accident prone, or they may even fall out of their classroom seats,” Chlebowski reports.

Opportunities for frequent movement, continues Chlebowski, also support a healthy vestibular (balance) sense.

“A strong vestibular sense is related to hearing, but it also supports the six eye muscles necessary for reading, writing, and accurate eye-hand coordination skills,” notes Chlebowski. “Children with a poorly-developed vestibular sense may have trouble tracking with their eyes to read or find things. An underdeveloped vestibular sense also means kids are fidgety and have less coordination.”

Chlebowski references Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book, Balanced and Barefoot (2016). In her work, Hanscom noticed an alarming rise in attention, sensory, and motor difficulties among elementary school children, and that more children than ever before (now one in six) were being referred for health related services, specifically occupational and physical therapies.

“To help her understand what she was seeing,” said Chlebowski, “Hanscom tested the core strength and balance of 5th graders and compared the results to the average core strength and balance skills of children in 1984. She found that only one in twelve children had the average core strength and balance that kids had 30 years ago. How can so many children have such pronounced deficits in just 25 years?”

Big picture

At an early childhood level, nature is embraced as a path to address yet another problem: one in 14 children takes a drug for emotional or behavioral problems, reflecting a five-fold increase since 1994, according to Williams.

A study published in the prestigious journal Neuroscience found that interaction with soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae increases serotonin in the brains of mice, much like Prozac and similar medications. There is widespread belief that immersion in nature—in this case soil—can soothe children in much the same way prescription medicines do.

Through nature play, research repeatedly demonstrates, a dramatic shift is possible, positively impacting myopia, reducing obesity, improving social relations, reducing stress, enhancing creativity and confidence, heightening cognitive abilities, reducing ADHD, and improving academic performance. Other research supports the idea that spending time in nature makes people healthier overall. Some pediatricians prescribe spending time outside for their obese, diabetic, anxious or depressed patients.

Caring for the environment

Childhood immersion in the outdoors also supports pro-environment attitudes and behavior in adulthood. And a new therapy mode, dubbed ecotherapy or ecopsychology, recognizes that connection—that the health of humans and the planet are interdependent, according Selhub and Logan. Ecopsychology embraces the practical application of a bimodal approach to brain health.

“On the one side of the ecotherapy coin is mindful nature interaction; on the other side is a commitment to nature through environmental awareness and understanding,” say Selhub and Logan.

Dianna Banks, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in Lewisburg, is interested in the benefits of nature immersion, both as an education option for her children and as a possible adjunct to her practice, in which she treats resistant disorders, including severe depression, anxiety, and trauma.

“The problem with incorporating ecotherapy into a practice is that it really isn’t a mode that is empirically supported right now,” she said. “Generally, when we’re looking to apply a treatment, we need to know how to apply it – over what time period, and when to assess both prior and post-treatment to see how successful it was.”

As a first step, Banks looks to environmental neuroscience, an emerging field devoted to the scientific study of brain-mediated, bidirectional relationships between organisms and their social and physical environment as a way to try to quantify the benefits of nature.

“What scientists are trying to do is manipulate green space,” she said. “How close do you need to put green space to people for it to be effective? Do they need to just be able to see it or be immersed in it? Can we use green space virtually? Do we need to manipulate lighting? We know that for children and adults there are so many benefits to nature that through city planning, and even augmenting neighborhoods with more trees, there is a way for everyone to benefit. But first we need to know what it looks like to be able to apply it,” Banks says.

 Diana Banks, PhD
Erica Shames
Clinical psychologist Diana Banks, PhD

From another angle

As a developmental psychologist, Chris Boyatzis, PhD, a professor at Bucknell University, says he has always been interested in childhood learning. However, the importance of nature in child development became prominent in his teaching and research after he started the Bucknell in Denmark summer program in 2011.

“I learned that a lot of Danish life was spent outdoors in nature,” he said. “They are not afraid of nature. And their favorite saying is, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’”

Boyatzis was particularly interested in specialized nature and forest schools in Denmark.

“I had never seen any here in the United States, or at least I’d never heard of any,” he remarks. “In fact, they are much more common in England and Europe. In Finland, children are allotted 15 minutes of outdoor play for every 45 minutes of indoor study.”

His interest piqued, Boyatzis revised his Bucknell in Denmark program to focus solely on nature schools.

“I got to know the directors and teachers at these schools, and began to do a lot of reading and research on the topic,” he notes. “In the United States, preschool has an academic orientation, while in Scandinavia, early childhood is a time of play and development of skills—learning how to be a human being, learning your interests, and learning how to interact with other people,” he said. “Nature and the great outdoors can be a wonderful classroom in which children learn a lot of these concepts outside without having to ‘teach them’ inside with artificial materials.”

It turns out, nature schools address concerns Boyatzis has held for decades about the increasing interiorization of children’s lives in the United States.

“We have the mantra, ‘No Child Left Behind,’” said Boyatzis. “Instead, it should be, ‘Leave No Child Inside.’ There’s a long story about why children are spending more time indoors than ever, and I’ve always been concerned about it – it’s simply not natural.”

Through visiting and interacting with students in Denmark’s nature schools, Boyatzis observed significant benefits.

“I’m seeing how incredibly competent, autonomous, skilled, and confident young children are outside in nature when they’re given a lot of freedom to explore natural environments,” he said.

To further her knowledge in nature-based education, Chlebowski accompanied Boyatzis on a Bucknell in Denmark program in 2018 to conduct study tours of nature schools. She witnessed firsthand the dynamics of an ethos centered on outdoor learning.

“In Denmark, nature is a central element in not just children’s lives, but in every Danish person’s life,” she says. “It’s a completely different culture, in terms of how children are raised, in which they’re seen as confident and capable. And it’s a different cultural norm about connection to nature and how essential it is.”

 Children paint at Mud Club Nature Preschool.
Mud Club Nature Preschool
Children paint at Mud Club Nature Preschool.

A look back

A nature-centered philosophy was espoused by Richard Louv in his bestselling book, The Last Child in the Woods (2005). Louv introduced a concept called Nature Deficit Disorder and promoted the positive effects nature can have on children’s development. He defines the concept as what happens when people, particularly children, spend little or no time outside in natural environments, resulting in physical and mental problems including anxiety and distraction. Moreover, Louv’s book documented how much modern family life has changed in the last few decades.

Children spend more time watching television and playing video games than being physically active outside. The negative repercussions are vast, spanning physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and environmental areas.

Since the publication of The Last Child in the Woods, Louv founded the Children and Nature Network, an organization that supports and mobilizes leaders, educators, activists, practitioners, and parents working to turn the trend of an indoor childhood back to the benefits of nature – and to increase safe and equitable access to the natural world for all.

In 2016, Hanscom, the pediatric occupational therapist, took that idea a step further when she called unrestricted outdoor play for children, starting in infancy, “a vital component of strong, confident, and capable children.” Hanscom urges parents and educators to bring outdoor play to both home and school environments.

“Free play and opportunities to move are essential for healthy child development and for fostering a lifelong love of learning,” adds Hanscom, in her book’s chapter, ‘Rethinking Recess and the Classroom.’ “However, in order to promote more play and movement throughout the day, it’s vital to rethink our current educational models. Sitting for long hours at a desk prevents a good portion of children from learning at their full potential.”

Where are we?

There is mounting evidence that the value of nature schools is resonating with some parents and educators.

“There are increasing numbers of nature schools and forest schools, and you see it right in this area,” says Boyatzis. “And it’s worth noting that the state of Washington, in 2019, officially recognized and accredited outdoor preschool education.”

Regionally, two of the most recent entries in the nature school category are Mud Club Nature Preschool and Fern Hill School.

Samantha Sabo and Renee Kerstetter started Mud Club on Samantha’s Mifflinburg property in the fall of 2020. The goal in starting the school was to offer their respective children, ages 4 and 5 at the time, a learning option that aligned with their parenting styles—one that Samantha describes as “very respectful of children.”

“We both believe in a child-led program where the adults aren’t forcing children to learn a particular thing, but rather we look at what the children are interested in, through their play choices, and follow their lead,” said Sabo.

Mud Club has since moved into space at Brookpark Farm, in Lewisburg, abutting a creek that plays a central role in everyday learning. On the day I visited, children ages 2 to 5 were exploring the creek, in all its muddy glory.

“The skills imparted with this type of free play and exploration are endless,” said Kerstetter. “Everything from confidence in navigating a muddy bank and stream, autonomy in doing it without an adult overseeing their progress, and social and emotional development, as the kids figure out how to share the loose parts—pots and pans, pitchers, buckets, and cups—with each other.”

Jennifer Boyunegmez is the founder and director of Fern Hill School, a nature school for kindergarten through sixth grades, located in Milton. Its goal is to offer a student-centered environment that honors play in learning, fosters a relationship with nature, and allows each child to “wander in wonder.” Other principles stressed by the school include compassion, courage, integrity, oneness, responsibility, and respect.

“I reached a point in my career where I wanted to challenge myself professionally—and facilitate an opportunity where I know how the learning is happening, and I know what the experiences are,” she said.

 Jennifer Boyunegmez is the founder of Fern Hill Nature School.
Erica Shames
Jennifer Boyunegmez is the founder of Fern Hill Nature School.

Boyunegmez left her job at an independent school in Columbia County where she taught for 10 years to pursue her dream of starting a nature school. Then COVID hit, and she put the idea on hold to facilitate learning for a pod of seven students when schools shut down during the pandemic. She facilitated an outdoor-oriented learning program from the homes and backyards of participating students.

A chance encounter led her to meet Hillary Lamont, a Williamsport educator working to start a nature school called Fern Hill. Some administrative roadblocks led Lamont to turn over the 501c3 to Boyunegmez. Planning for the new school, including recruiting a board of directors and creating curriculum, started January 2021, and Fern Hill began its first school year August 2021 with 30 students.

“It’s lovely there are pockets of people who really understand the importance of this type of outdoor education, and honoring children’s voices and agency in their educational journey,” said Boyunegmez. “We’re focused on social-emotional development in a way that is equal to the focus on academic development of children.”

According to Boyunegmez, the best play-based education cultivates experiences that are interactive and promote cognitive thinking skills. “We can sing songs and count to 10, and they can spit that information back to us. But when they’re counting to 10 to fill a bucket outside, it’s way more authentic. Add the teamwork aspect and collaboration with peers in the task, and it’s something that’s really important, necessary, and valuable. And we’ve created a situation where we have happy, happy learners.”

One of the goals of Fern Hill is, in Boyunegmez’ words, “to preserve the innocence of childhood,” something that frequently gets lost in an age so focused on technology and social media that children often hear and see things and are pressured to act in ways that are age-inappropriate.

“We have some students who are nearly 11, and they don’t feel annoyed or bothered by three-year-olds who want piggyback rides through the field,” said Boyunegmez. “They’re really happy, and they also know they are allowed to set a boundary and say, Okay, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to go and do something that’s more age-appropriate for me. It’s maybe a one-room schoolhouse kind of feel and approach.”

Another important focus for the school is connecting with community. “We have students from all over the area, but we are located in Milton,” stressed Boyunegmez. “David Sobel [the American educator and academic] talks about place-based education, and making connections within our community is super-important. And we’ve started to do that by partnering with some of the shops downtown, and with TIME, The Improved Milton Experience. We have a parent, a history professor at Bucknell, who took us on historic walks of Milton last year. It’s sort of the bloom where you’re planted kind of idea.”

On the day I visited, children of varying ages were re-creating canals they had learned about on their historic walk. Some children assisted by supplying dirt or water; others dug canals or repaired breaches in canal walls. The mood was cooperative, focused, and cheerful.

 Re-creating a canal system that once existed in Milton at Fern Hill.
Erica Shames
Re-creating a canal system that once existed in Milton at Fern Hill.

Benefits of Montessori and more

In fact, there is a history of nature schools in our region. One of the first, River Valley Nature School, was started in 2006 by Chlebowski and Lida Lawrence, a Lewisburg-based, Walden-trained educator, on Chlebowski’s seven-acre property in New Berlin. The daycare/preschool offered the benefits of a Montessori-like education and more.

“What I saw when I first observed the [Montessori] classroom was unlike anything I had ever seen,” Chlebowski said of a Montessori School Open House she attended in 2006. “Education was child-led, and the relationship between adults and children was one of complete respect.”

That same year, Chlebowski decided to “get training and figure out what the magic was all about,” resulting in her certification as an AMS Certified Montessori Teacher.

Chlebowski and Lawrence modeled RVNS after Maria Montessori’s example in which “follow the child” is a central tenet. In true Montessori fashion, the two educators served more as facilitators, co-learners, and mentors than lead teachers.

“A key role of adults in the children’s sphere, according to Montessori, is to observe them to learn what interests them and where they’re thriving, and use that information to create more similar experiences,” said Chlebowski.

What Chlebowski and Lawrence learned was that the children thrived most when they were outside.

“We observed that while outdoors—doing everything from gardening and gathering eggs from the chicken coop to playing in the woods—the children presented fewer challenging behaviors, they were engaged and self-directed,” Chlebowski said. “They showed amazing creativity and imagination. They were developing social skills, emotional intelligence—all the key features you would want to see in a quality early childcare program were happening at the highest level outside. As a result, we created a program that allowed us to spend as much time outside as inside, and in all kinds of weather.”

Chlebowski took time off, starting in 2012, while her children were in high school and preparing to attend college. In 2015, she learned of an opening at a nature preschool operated in conjunction with Lewisburg-based Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority. She was hired to operate the school, before leaving in 2019 to continue her education.

“After years of seeing how children thrive outside, I left that position to do a deep dive into forest and nature school training,” Chlebowski said. Training in the United Kingdom, including a field study of nature schools in Scotland, earned Chlebowski the designation, Certified Nature Based Educator.

Community input

In 2020, to introduce teachers, administrators, and parents to the concept of nature schools and their benefits, Boyatzis organized the event, “Children and Nature Convening” at Bucknell. Chlebowski gave the keynote speech, in which she advocated for giving all children the opportunity to spend at least part of their school week learning and moving outdoors, bringing them joy but also enhancing their environmental literacy.

“I believe that our indoor culture, combined with a societal focus on technology and academic achievement at the expense of acknowledging and responding to the complexity of children’s developmental needs, is having an unintended yet undeniable effect: we are violating children’s rights to experience healthy development,” she concluded.

“The purpose of the event was to try to raise awareness about the importance of nature in children’s lives—at home, at school, and in the community,” added Boyatzis. “We had a wonderful turnout, but were cursed with the bad luck of COVID blowing up just weeks later. That totally put the kibosh on any momentum we had coming out of that convening.” Boyatzis is talking with co-planners of the event to organize a similar event in spring 2023.

Boyatzis cites some resistance, especially from public school educators, to the nature school concept.

Clearly, there is more work to be done.

“The thinking is, we have a highly structured school day and we have to get certain things done, given that educators are driven by tests,” he said. “So, the question becomes, how can we find time for kids to be outside more? And there is a real question, on their part, as to the educational value of being outside in nature.”

Growing the idea

Outdoor access in the U.S. is evolving from public school settings that allow children a small portion of time outdoors to nature and forest schools that place nature front and center in all aspects of the curriculum. Organizations tasked with the goal of addressing outdoor access already are having an impact, and meet Pennsylvania core standards in education in the process.

Currently, Chlebowski works as an outdoor learning and play consultant for York- and Lemoyne-based Child Care Consultants, Inc., which serves as an Early Learning Resource Center to help children, families, and early childhood education programs be successful. One way that success is measured is how much access children have to the outdoors. Considering children can spend up to 10 hours a day in daycare, it makes sense.

“It’s a dream job for me,” Chlebowski said. “CCC hired me to work with childcare centers interested in bringing more nature- and play-based learning into their programs. We help any childcare center—from home-based daycare to large childcare centers—figure out how to do expanded outdoor learning, even in all kinds of weather. In short, to help them make a commitment to use nature to address developmental goals, ranging from making kids more resilient, better problem solvers, and critical thinkers to all the other important early childhood goals of social skills, and emotional and physical development. All they have to do is ask and we show up. There is no cost to them.”

First steps

In deciding how to implement a nature play area, it turns out an outdoor kitchen is a great way to see the “magic” happen, particularly for early childhood educators who are less familiar with the value of nature play. Children at Mud Club Nature Preschool and Fern Hill school have access to an outdoor kitchen, and one is planned for the new nature play area at Lewisburg’s Hufnagle Park.

“One of the first things we do is show up with loose parts—the things that children will play with that don’t necessarily look like toys,” said Chlebowski, of her role at CCC. “We bring slices of tree branches, which we call wood cookies. We bring pine cones, and all kinds of natural materials. We go to thrift stores to hunt for pots and pans. All that’s needed is a horizontal surface and maybe a water source.Children are immediately engaged and they’re addressing all kinds of important developmental needs.”

Chlebowski and a co-teacher follow up this exercise by creating a document combining words and pictures to illustrate for childcare administrators the connection between nature play and Pennsylvania learning standards.

“We show them how the children, through nature play, actually accomplish all these learning objectives,” said Chlebowski.

Where do we go from here?

While Chlebowski is optimistic the crusade to immerse children in nature is moving in the right direction she feels more attention must be paid to achieve the objective for every child, especially in vulnerable communities.

“If children are our future, we need to give them the best present we possibly can,” she said. “And the best present for them is to ensure they have a nature-rich childhood. The benefits are too vast and important for us to ignore. And we must become very intentional about creating a nature-rich childhood for every child, if we truly want them to thrive.”

Boyatzis, for his part, is teaching the next generation of educators to think about outdoor education as a viable option for the future. His Bucknell in Denmark course attracts education majors, many of whom are inspired to seek teaching opportunities at nature schools after graduation.

Through another course, “Children in Nature,” Boyatzis helps students investigate the role of nature in their own lives.

“We actually spend a great deal of that class outside in nature,” said Boyatzis. “And the students volunteer at forest schools in the area. The goal is to change their perspective, one person at a time.

“As a teacher,” he adds, “we’re all trying to affect the future. One way I’m doing that is to show students how happy kids are at outdoor schools. A decade from now, they’re going to have kids, and I want them to see how optimal it is for their own kids’ development. And, as an added bonus, it turns out that some of the most important environmentalists and nature activists in the world can point back to childhood as a very special time when they learned to appreciate nature.”


For adults looking for more information and ways to get their children outside, Chlebowski recommends a number of books, organizations, and research studies.

-“Experiences of Nature Boost Children’s Learning.” Critical review finds cause-and-effect relationship between the outdoors and education. (Science Daily)


-Children and Nature Network—Richard Louv’s organization. Many additional resources on this website.

-Natural Start Alliance - a network of people and organizations that believe all young children need

frequent opportunities to experience, learn from, and care for nature and the environment through high-quality education. https://naturalstart.org/about-us

-Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools - a non-profit organization that provides services, support, and inspiration to early childhood professionals to advance the field of nature-based early childhood education and encourage life-long appreciation for our natural world.

Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident and Capable Children, by Angela Hanscom. This is Susan Chlebowski’s top recommendation for a book for parents, teachers, grandparents, and caregivers.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray

Mud Club Nature Preschool - https://www.mudclubkids.org/

Fern Hill School - https://www.fernhillschoolpa.org/

River Valley Nature School, Lewisburg - Ages 3 through 6th grade.


Nature Explore Classroom, Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, Lewisburg.


Erica Shames is the emeritus founder and publisher of Susquehanna Life magazine, Central Pennsylvania’s original lifestyle publication.