What’s In Your Backpack?

Socrates once said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” So why not be ready when you’re hiking along and one of your students expresses wonder or curiosity? Having a backpack of readily available and easily accessible tools can support child-directed learning and highlight the wonderment and awe of the natural world.

Tools provide children the opportunity to do serious work which shapes how they define and interact with the world. When children use tools, they build on their life experiences and grow their knowledge base. Together, tools and nature have the ability to create a kind of community where every child is an active member in their own pursuit of knowledge.

Every morning at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the children and teachers come together and practice yoga with Yoga Pretzels cards before heading out on the daily hike/exploration. In this setting, yoga is used as a tool to calm the body and strengthen the mind. After ringing the yoga bell and practicing the Mountain pose the children are asked, “What does your mountain look like, can you describe it?” A girl in pink sparkly rain boots shoots her hand up in excitement, “I’m a sparkly, rainbow, glitter mountain.” Another boy tentatively raises his hand, “I’m a smooth mountain.” And after all the children have had a turn to share, it is time to head out on the hike – the students with a calm mind and their teacher with a backpack full of literal tools.


So what are the tools that the Directors of NINPA recommend? A take along tool that weighs almost nothing but can be utilized throughout the year are play cards. To create the following play cards simply print, cut, laminate, hole punch and connect to the outside of your backpack. Try using the perspective cards as a kind of game where children draw a card, one by one, and follow the written directive!  Do you have a child who loves carrying sticks or one that enjoys engineering? Try using the building cards as springboard for creating and building cooperatively with sticks. Need an ambulator to get you from one place to another? Use NINPA’s common plant identification cards or create a set related to your outdoor space for a take-along kind of scavenger hunt! Are you in a more urban setting? Try taking photos of the hardscape or various structures close-up. Then print these images off and use them as a tool to investigate a familiar space with an up-close view of the parts that create the whole!

Looking for a more hands-on kind of tool? Ever thought of making your own magnifier? These light weight and free magnifying lenses can be used in several different fashions. Try adding a drop of water to the “magnifying end” to create real magnification; or use an expo marker and draw a shape, letter, or number onto the “magnifying end.” These can be used again and again in any weather or season!


What about various tools that help children focus? Create your own “nature pointer” by painting one end of a long stick. Take this simple tool along on your excursions to assist you in pointing out natural wonders to students! A great way to look for colors is to collect and pre-punch old paint chips! Toss this light weight tool in your backpack and when spring or autumn rolls around, you’ll be ready to support looking for and matching colors.

Ever thought about carrying along multifunctional wooden peg dolls or story rocks? wooden peg dolls can be found on Amazon and can support storytelling and the creation of miniature worlds. You can also create your own story rocks/ wood cookies, by painting a picture or printing and modge podging a picture onto your desired surface.  Then place a handful of them into a bag and into your backpack! Try having everyone sit in a circle, taking turns pulling a rock out of the bag and using that picture to come up with a sentence or two to create a communal story!  

Whatever the tool, no matter the season, you’ll be ready to explore the great outdoors both in urban and rural settings! Good luck out there and may the power of tools inspire you!

About the Author

Sarah Sheldon is a Lead Teacher at the Chicago Botanic Garden Nature Preschool and Advisor of Professional development for NINPA.



amyA new national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found that the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high. The study, conducted by four associations serving early childhood professionals, identified more than 250 nature preschools and kindergartens across the country – a 66% increase over the previous year’s tally of 150. The programs serve approximately 10,000 children every year, and eight out of ten programs reported that they started a waiting list in the previous twelve months.

In the Chicago area, this national trend is even more pronounced. There are 16 dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens in the area, more than double in the last decade, according to data from the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association (NINPA). And that growth includes campuses at some of the most respected regional environmental education facilities, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“I’m excited to see the growth in our area,” said Megan Gessler, President of NINPA and Manager of Natural Beginnings Early Learning Program in Yorkville, Ill. “But that growth really represents a small part of our overall impact. Beyond dedicated nature preschools and forest kindergartens, many traditional schools and programs are borrowing from our practices and philosophies.”

The Natural Start Alliance, one of the groups that conducted the survey, defines nature preschools as schools that use nature as the organizing principle for their programs. Nature preschools require their teaching staff to have skills and experience in both early childhood education and environmental education. A significant portion of the school day in nature preschools is spent outside. Forest kindergartens are a type of nature preschool that takes place entirely outdoors, often allowing the children’s interests and curiosity to lead the day’s activities and inform the curriculum.

“The continued growth of these programs suggests that more parents are looking for forms of early childhood education in which nature facilitates children’s learning and development,” said Emilian Geczi, the Natural Start Alliance’s Director. “I think parents increasingly appreciate how the ever-changing environment and the many colors, textures, and sounds of nature foster discovery, collaboration, and the imagination.”

The survey found that, on average across all programs, students spent three-quarters of the school day outside. Almost half of the preschools and kindergartens offered full-day programs. The vast majority of programs reported using self-developed or emergent curricula, consistent with a general preference for child-directed and open-ended activities in many nature-based early childhood education settings.

The survey results also showed that some student populations, especially ethnic and racial minorities, were underrepresented in the nature-based programs. For example, only 3% of students in nature preschools and forest kindergartens were reported to be African American and 7% to be Hispanic. In comparison, the latest U.S. Census found that 15% of children under 5 were African American and 25% were Hispanic. The survey found similar underrepresentation of students with special needs and dual language learners.

“Clearly, the field needs to be much more intentional about planning, promoting, and running inclusive programs. The Natural Start Alliance is making this a major focus of its efforts,” said Geczi. The Natural Start Alliance organizes an annual national conference for nature-based early childhood educators and supports the work of the Council of Nature and Forest Preschools, a group focused on advancing the field. The theme of the 2017 Nature-Based Preschool Conference, held in Seattle, was equity and cultural responsiveness.

The other associations that participated in conducting the national survey were the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools, the Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association, and the Washington Area Nature Preschools Association.

“Children have an innate sense of curiosity and are drawn to the natural world,” Gessler said. “Fostering that curiosity prepares a child for lifelong learning and lays the foundation to face a constantly evolving world.”

“Just as important, allowing time and space for children to have meaningful interactions with nature helps them develop a respect and appreciation for the environment,” Gessler said.

The survey was sent in the summer of 2017 to 261 schools representing the combined membership lists of the four associations. The survey received a 47% response rate. Six surveys were undeliverable.

You can read the full survey results at

About the survey authors:

The Natural Start Alliance is a national coalition of educators, researchers, and parents who help young children connect with nature and care for the environment. Natural Start is a project of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Contact: Emilian Geczi, Natural Start Alliance Director,, 847-835-6834,

The Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools is 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. Contact: Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director,

The Northern Illinois Nature Preschools Association is a professional collaborative that promotes, supports and enhances nature-based early childhood education. Contact: Megan Gessler, Founder and President,,

The Washington Area Nature Preschools Association is a regional collaborative developed to support nature-based and outdoor early childhood education and teachers while working to meet the goals of connection, professional development, resource sharing, community participation, research, and improving preschool education. Contact: Kit Harrington, Founder and Director; Kendall Becherer, Co-Director,, 206-616-5261,


How to find the right nature-based preschool…

What is a nature-based preschool?  Well, each nature-based program can differ quite significantly.  Some programs hold classes outside all day with little to no indoor space.  Some programs bring outdoor elements into their existing classroom and add some nature themes to their existing curriculum as well as extend the outdoor time and perhaps utilize a nature-play space.  Curriculum can range from play-based to emergent to project to planned inquiry units to prepackaged.  There are many programs that fall in between this spectrum.  Each program has value.  Finding the right fit for your family is a personal choice.  That is why we at NINPA have included an interactive map for finding nature-based programs in your area.  Check them out and see what what works best for you.  Here are some things to look for or some questions to ask while on your tour:

  1.  What is the educational philosophy of the school?
  2. What is the educational background of the staff?  What is their rate of turnover?
  3. Look at teacher-student interactions.  Are they positive?
  4. What does the daily schedule look like?
  5. Can you picture your child thriving here? Will this school engage your child’s interests?  Will your child’s learning style be suited well at this program?
  6. Do the students appear happy?  Busy?  Interacting positively?
  7. Do the teachers appear happy?  Ask them what they like about working there.
  8. How large are the classes and what is the student/teacher ratio?
  9. Does the school feel warm and inviting?
  10. What is on the walls of the classroom?  Is it eye level for a child?  Is it developmentally appropriate?  Does it feel overwhelming or does it reflect student artwork?  Is it for the parent or for the child?
  11. Is everyone doing the same project or activity at the same time?  How are individual interests accommodated?  Are the children engaged?
  12. How much play is involved?  How does the program encourage learning skills that will be needed during the child’s scholastic career?  What does “learning” look like at this program?  How is it documented or communicated?
  13. How does the school address social-emotional issues?  What are the discipline policies?
  14. How can parents become involved in the program?