Research Summary

Creative by Nature: Investigating the Impact of Nature Preschools on Young Children’s Creative Thinking

Evaluating the Impact of Nature Preschools on Creative Thinking in Early Childhood

The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education

Creative thinking is an essential skill for solving complex problems. Past research has shown that early childhood (3-5 years) is an invaluable time to instill creative thinking skills and pro-environmental values. Nature preschools, which provide age-appropriate learning with nature as their central theme, may help to foster creative thinking and pro-environmental values during early childhood. Nature preschools commonly employ “nature play,” which includes unstructured activities in natural outdoor environments. However, early childhood educators have reported feeling pressure to increase structured learning opportunities and decrease unstructured play time, such as nature play, for students. Decreases in unstructured learning opportunities in schools may be linked to observed decreased creative thinking skills in children. This study investigated how nature preschools with daily unstructured nature play impacted students’ creative thinking development.

Creative thinking is defined as the ability to produce novel ideas that add value, and is characterized by active learning, pattern recognition, questioning of existing norms, problem solving, and decision making. Guilford’s Structure of Intellect (SOI) model posits that creativity is made up of multiple concepts. One key concept is “divergent thinking,” which is the capacity to think of many different solutions to a problem. The SOI model states that out of all of the components of creative thinking, divergent thinking has the strongest link to creativity, so divergent thinking tests are commonly used to investigate creative thinking skills. In this research, the authors used a preexisting questionnaire that measures divergent thinking called Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement (TCAM) instrument to collect data on creative thinking levels in students. The TCAM measures three components of creative thinking: 1) fluency, or number of ideas generated; 2) originality, or uniqueness of ideas; and 3) imagination, or capacity to adopt a new role. The TCAM measures these components by asking children to do four activities and scoring their responses: 1) how many ways can you move from one side of the room to the other, 2) can you move like? (asked participants to move like six different roles, which were scored on a scale from “no movement” to “excellent, like the thing”), 3) how many ways can you place a paper cup in the waste basket? and 4) what can you do with a paper cup?

This research was conducted in 5 preschools (4 nature preschools and 1 non-nature preschool) in Minnesota. The non-nature preschool was associated with a university and was selected as a baseline in this study because the preschool teacher was involved with the university’s ECE research and willing to participate. The non-nature preschool was also regarded as a high-quality preschool by the researchers. The authors did not explain how they selected the nature preschools included in the study. All of the preschools were full-day, partial-week programs, other than nature preschool C, which was a half-day program. The nature preschools spent a minimum of 2 hours outside every day, whereas the non-nature preschool spent less than 60 minutes outdoors. All of the nature preschools included a nature playscape as one of their learning spaces, whereas the non-nature preschool only had a fenced outdoor playground with plastic structures.

A total of 86 participants were included in the study, with 75 children from the nature preschools and 11 from the non-nature preschool. Participation was optional and depended on parental consent and child interest. The number of participants varied at each preschool; a total of 19 at nature preschool A, 13 at nature preschool B, 17 at nature preschool C, and 26 at nature preschool D. All participants were between 3 and 6 years of age. The researchers administered the TCAM at the beginning of the school year in September 2016 (pretest) and at the end of the school year in April 2017 (posttest). Using the TCAM, the researchers collected physical and verbal responses to the four activities to measure the three aspects of creative thinking. Researchers recorded the scores for the activities during the pretest and posttest, and the TCAM provided guidelines to convert these scores for analysis. The data were then analyzed using statistics.

Overall, nature preschool participants’ creative thinking scores increased over the school year, whereas the scores of non-nature preschool participants did not significantly change. These results were also true when the researchers compared across gender.

While overall creative thinking scores significantly increased for all nature preschools, individual components of creativity (fluency, originality, and imagination) increased depending on the school. Only participants in nature preschool D showed a significant increase in all 3 creative thinking components. Participants in nature preschool A had a significant increase in fluency and originality scores, participants in nature preschool B had a significant increase in fluency and imagination scores, and participants in nature preschool C had a significant increase in imagination scores. The authors hypothesized that the differences may have been due to the differences between half-day and full-day programs and the amount of time spent outdoors. The authors also suggested that the increase in imagination for students attending nature preschool C may have been linked to the fact that the preschool had access to a farm animal barn as a learning space; imagination is connected to empathy, which may increase when interacting with animals.

This study has several limitations. The sample size of non-nature preschool students was small and outnumbered by nature preschool participants. A larger study conducted at different schools may produce different results. An increase in creative thinking scores for non-nature preschool students may have been identified if more non-nature preschools were included in the study. Testing conditions and the nature of young children may have caused testing conditions to vary, impacting results across schools. The researchers spent time with the students before the testing to combat the possibility of confusing a lack of creative response with shyness.

The authors recommend that early childhood educators cultivate creative thinkers by creating spaces for children to practice formulating and implementing new ideas, and actively encourage students when they have novel and alternative ideas. The authors of this study also recommend creating time for extended periods of child-directed unstructured play outdoors in early childhood education. Ideally, preschools should provide outdoor play that is specifically nature play, where students play in and with nature. Nature playscapes have loose objects, change over time, and have ample space—all of which facilitate creative thinking while encouraging pro-environmental values.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated creative thinking for students at 4 nature preschools and 1 non-nature preschool over a school year. Students at nature preschools increased overall creative thinking, and there was no significant change in creative thinking scores for students attending the non-nature preschool. Early childhood educators should create space for students to formulate and implement novel ideas and support students who have alternative ideas, ideally by incorporating extended periods of child-directed nature play.

Wojciehowski, M., & Ernst, J.. (2018). Creative by Nature: Investigating the Impact of Nature Preschools on Young Children’s Creative Thinking. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 6(1), 3 - 20. presented at the 2018///.