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Natural Wonders: A Guide to Early Childhood for Environmental Educators

Contents & Download  |  About Developmentally Appropriate Practice  |  Credits

Natural WondersEnvironmental educators have recognized the need to provide specialized programming for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families. Likewise, record numbers of parents, daycare providers and early childhood educators have begun seeking out nature centers, zoos and museums as places to help their not-yet school-aged children learn, grow and develop an appreciation of and love for nature.

This guide was written especially for naturalists and environmental educators who are interested in learning more about how and why young children think and act. The guidelines offered here will help educators design developmentally appropriate programs and activities.

Children will have room and time to play, explore, experiment, run, leap, balance and climb; time to nurture friendships and learn about caring and sharing; and a chance to discover for themselves the beauty and wonders of nature.

Contents | Download

The sections of this guide become progressively more practical and specific—from understanding the basics of how young children think to evaluating the developmental appropriateness of programs and everything in between. Each section contains specific topics that explain in greater detail the elements of child development and what it means to facilitate young children’s learning. At the end of each topic is a chart detailing information and examples of most appropriate, somewhat appropriate or least appropriate practices associated with those topics.

I: Understanding Young Children

Developmentally Appropriate Practice, Developmental Stages, Constructivism, Egocentrism, Teaching to the Whole Child, Multiple Intelligence Theory, Diverse Learners, Learning through Play, What You Need to Know About Children Under Six

II: Planning for Active Learning

Teaching vs. Learning Objectives, Appropriate Topics, Authentic Experiences, Inquiry-Based Learning, Guiding Children’s Behavior

III: Essential Ingredients for Active Learning

Hands-On Learning, Open-Ended Activities, Choice

IV: Supporting Active Learning

Learning Stations, Art, Story Time, Outdoor Exploration

V: Possible Program Formats

Infant and Toddler Programs, Adult-Child Programs, Drop-Off and Camp Programs, School Groups

VI: Developing and Evaluating Your Program

Learning Stations, Art, Story Time, Outdoor Exploration

VII: Resources

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Natural Wonders

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Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Developmentally appropriate practice is an early childhood education standard that was first described by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. According to NAEYC, developmentally appropriate practice is matching the learning environment—the physical set-up, materials, schedule, curriculum, teaching methods and so forth—to the developmental levels of children. Natural WondersIt means understanding the developmental changes that typically occur from birth through age eight (and beyond), variations in development for individuals and how we can best support their learning and development during these years.

There is no magic formula for developmentally appropriate practice. Educators make decisions day by day, minute by minute, based on knowledge of how children develop and learn, the individual children and families in question and the environmental, social and cultural context (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood environmental education means making program choices that emphasize and support both the individual and collective abilities of children.

What are the benefits of using developmentally appropriate practice?

  • Children have better comprehension and retention. Because material is presented in a manner best suited to their developmental stage, the material is absorbed better than it would have been if it was designed for older children.
  • There are fewer struggles to get children to engage in the program. Material presented in a developmentally appropriate manner is more interesting to students and naturally grabs their attention.
  • Children and adults can learn together. Following a child’s lead often takes us in a much more interesting direction than any adult prescribed curriculum.
  • More diverse programming can reach more students. Creating developmentally appropriate materials requires more diverse forms of interaction and presentation and reaches more diverse learning styles.


This publication was created by the Minnesota Early Childhood Environmental Education Consortium, and funded, in part, by a FY2000 Environmental Assistance grant; check out other projects in the online grants database. The authors gratefully acknowledge everyone involved in the project and the creation of this guide.


  • Marcie Oltman, Minnesota Children's Museum
  • Mark Granlund, Green Crayon
  • April Rust, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Project WET
  • Julie Powers, Consultant
  • Jenny Eckman, Tri-District Community Cultures and Environmental Science Elementary School
  • Sandra Hudson, Tamarack Nature Center
  • Nikki Schneider, Dodge Nature Center

Updated January 2007 | December 2002

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