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Exploring the Wild Side of Learning: How Nature Nurtures Executive Function Skills in Preschoolers

What is This Study About?

In this article, we discuss the findings of the study, titled Supporting School Readiness Naturally- Exploring Executive Function Growth in Nature Preschools Zamzow, J., Ernst, J., (2020). This study compared the executive function skill growth of preschool students in four nature preschool classrooms to students attending two non-nature preschool programs.The study addresses the concern that traditional approaches to early childhood education, emphasizing structured learning for school readiness, might limit the development of EF skills. Nature preschools, with their nature-centric curricula and emphasis on unstructured outdoor play, are proposed as an alternative that could potentially enhance EF. Even if you don’t have a nature preschool nearby, there are plenty of easy-to-execute activities from the study that you can do with your child to reap the benefits of outdoor EF practice! How can providing children with more access to nature increase that advantage? 

Key Takeaways From the Study:

Nature Play and Executive Function Skills:

  • The study suggests that nature play, involving activities like splashing in puddles and exploring natural settings, positively contributes to the development of executive function skills in preschoolers.
  • Nature preschools, characterized by a child-directed approach, extensive outdoor play, and exposure to natural environments, offer a unique setting for fostering EF growth.

Executive Function Skills and Academic Achievement:

  • Executive function skills act as attention-regulation skills critical for conscious planning, goal-oriented behavior, and academic achievement.
  • The study highlights the predictive nature of EF skills for positive approaches to learning, school readiness, and long-term academic performance.

Holistic Development and Unstructured Play:

  • Both nature and non-nature preschoolers in the study exhibit significant growth in executive function skills, challenging the assumption that only structured learning supports cognitive development.
  • The focus on holistic development, combined with substantial periods of unstructured play, emerges as a common factor contributing to executive function skill growth in preschoolers.

Potential Impact on Sustainable Future:

  • The findings suggest that nature preschool participants not only develop essential EF skills but also deepen their connection to the natural world.
  • This connection to nature, coupled with strong executive function skills, is seen as valuable for addressing environmental challenges, which could contribute to a more sustainable future.

Actionable Steps for Parents:

You can draw insights from this study to support your child’s development:

Prioritize Unstructured Play:


  • Provide opportunities for unstructured play both indoors and outdoors, allowing your child to lead and explore activities of their choosing.
  • Unstructured play supports the development of executive function skills, fostering cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory.
  • Try: Play Your Way! Let your child choose how they want to play, then ask reflection questions such as “What did you enjoy the most about this playtime?” and “Was it hard to choose what to do?” If you played along, offer your explanation about what you enjoyed the most.

Engage in Nature Exploration:


  • Plan regular outings to natural settings, encouraging your child to explore and engage with the outdoors.
  • Exposure to nature contributes not only to executive function skill growth but also nurtures your child’s curiosity and connection to the environment.
  • Try: Scavenger Hunt. Pick a theme, such as “things that are round” or “things with bright colors”. Provide some guidelines, like “All of the things you find have to be between the path and the tree line.” Conclude the hunt by asking questions about the hunt, especially what your child was most excited to find!

Support Holistic Development:


  • Emphasize a holistic approach to learning, considering cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development.
  • Balance structured activities with periods of child-initiated, imaginative play to promote well-rounded development.
  • Try: Puddle Jumper. Post-rain puddles are hard to resist! Prompt some EF practice with scenarios like “Show me the smallest splash you can make with both feet!” and “How could you make a big splash with just one foot?” Follow up with some unstructured splashing fun!

Encourage Imaginative Play:


  • Provide props, costumes, and open-ended toys to stimulate imaginative play.
  • Imaginative play activates executive function skills and supports the development of cognitive flexibility and working memory.
  • Try: Lights! Camera! Action! Break out the costumes and a selection of props. Ask your child to choose a character to play or a scenario to act out using what is available. Encourage creativity and flexible thinking for “missing” props or clothing pieces- “What do you have that could be a parrot for your pirate character?” “What could you use for a crown instead?” Take the game outside to incorporate natural props and settings.

Want to learn more about executive function skills? Take our free online course.

How does your child engage with nature in their day-to-day lives? Read our summary of a study that breaks down how playing in nature can help improve Executive Function!