Prior to this article and the special issue of Frontiers in Psychology in which it was embedded (Kuo & Jordan, 2019, now published as an ebook), the term “nature-based learning” (NBL) occurred occasionally in the general sense of learning in nature. This chapter describes a collaborative process to define this term in a specific way that brings together different branches of research: studies in environmental education that investigate learning about nature in nature; studies of informal learning through free play and discovery in nature; and studies of the benefits that people gain by being in nature, no matter what subject or skill they are acquiring there. The term highlights how being in nature or engaging with other living things or natural artifacts can benefit learning, development, and wellbeing in multiple ways. Since the publication of this chapter and the special issue in Frontiers, the term “nature-based learning” appears frequently in new studies’ titles, keywords, abstracts, and texts. It has become an organizing term for a current literature review (Mann et al., 2021) and a research collection (Children & Nature Network, 2020). One means to increase opportunities for nature-based learning—green schoolyard development—has become the focus of a research agenda of its own (Stevenson et al., 2020); and the term has already become the subject of critical analysis (Ross, 2020). Many new publications demonstrate active interest in different questions related to nature-based learning, and the fact that this term has been incorporated into a number of bachelors, masters, and doctoral level theses shows that it has caught the attention of emerging scholars.

1 Introduction

Although evidence is accumulating for the impact of nature-based learning (NBL) on children’s outcomes, there is much we don’t know (Kuo et al., 2019, see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume). A deeper understanding of how, why, for whom, and under what circumstances different forms of nature contact enhance learning and development is needed to guide practice and policy decision-making. This chapter presents the outcome of an initiative to define NBL and set a research agenda to advance the pace and rigor of research on its impact.

In 2015 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) provided a three-year grant to the University of Minnesota, the Children & Nature Network (C&NN), the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to establish the Science of Nature-Based Learning Collaborative Research Network (NBLR Network). On three occasions, the NBLR Network convened two dozen academic researchers from diverse disciplines, practitioners, environmental organization representatives, and funders from across the U.S. The Network aimed to: (1) jointly develop a definition and research agenda to inform the rigorous development of the science of NBL, (2) disseminate research-based information, and (3) conduct collaborative research responsive to this agenda (Jordan et al., 2017). This chapter reports on the first aim of developing a definition and research agenda. It draws on an integrative literature review to determine and disseminate the status of our understanding of NBL impacts and explanatory mechanisms (see Kuo et al., 2019, see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume). Collaborative research that is responsive to agenda questions is currently underway.

The term “nature-based learning” was introduced in the grant application to NSF as part of an effort to coordinate research that had been scattered across multiple disciplines. NBLR Network members were sent a draft definition of this term by this chapter’s authors, and they responded with suggestions and comments. Successive revisions were circulated until members of the network agreed on the following definition and scope for this field.

NBL, or learning through exposure to nature and nature-based activities, occurs in natural settings and where elements of nature have been brought into built environments, such as plants, animals and water. It encompasses the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and behaviors in realms including, but not limited to, academic achievement, personal development, and environmental stewardship. It includes learning about the natural world, but extends to engagement in any subject, skill or interest while in natural surroundings. NBL can occur with varying degrees of guidance or structure, across the age span, alone or with others, and in urban, suburban, rural and wilderness settings. NBL occurs in informal, nonformal and formal settings (La Belle, 1982).Footnote 1 With respect to children’s NBL, it includes informal learning during children’s free play or discovery in nature in their yards, near their homes, in green schoolyards, on the naturalized grounds of child care centers, or in any other natural area. It includes nonformal learning in nature during out-of-school programs, camps or family visits to parks or nature centers. And it includes formal learning when children have contact with nature during structured activities in schools, preschools, and child care centers, or during outdoor field trips.

The following section of this chapter reviews the methods used to develop an NBL research agenda. A subsequent section summarizes the agenda’s major questions grounded in the literature and in the minds of educators, researchers and funders, as well as recommendations for methods, measures, and designs that will be complementary and rigorous. The intent of this chapter is to encourage more coordination and collaboration among researchers, to promote a focus on the most pertinent research questions and most robust methods in order to advance this field, and to make a case for the importance of NBL as a field for study as well as practice. We acknowledge the boundary that participants in this agenda-setting process were drawn from the U.S. They considered existing studies from around the world and intended their work to be useful internationally; yet different countries may have different research cultures, and this agenda might reflect different emphases if it were generated in another part of the world.

2 Methodology in Developing the Research Agenda

2.1 Assembling Diverse Perspectives on NBL

This section traces the process of setting a research agenda during the three-year period of the National Science Foundation grant that began in September 2015. The project’s coordinating team from the grant’s four lead institutions worked together to identify academic researchers, practitioners, representatives of environmental organizations, and funders from across the U.S. whose work related to NBL, with the goal of assembling a diverse membership for the NBLR Network, based on a variety of disciplines, methodological approaches, and stakeholder connections. The 23 members of the network first convened in November 2015 for a three-day retreat to build relationships, agree on a common vision and direction for work, and discuss possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration. In January 2016, NBLR Network members were asked to share written answers to the following questions, which guided development of the research agenda.

  1. 1.

    What is the status of our knowledge about whether, how, why, under what circumstances and for whom nature impacts children’s learning?

  2. 2.

    What are the strengths and limitations of the research?

  3. 3.

    What research questions would most effectively advance knowledge relevant to practice and policy?

  4. 4.

    Are there considerations about the state of the current research that suggest methodological recommendations for the field?

After members shared their written reflections, they participated in conference calls to further elaborate and interpret responses.

Several means were used to capture the ideas of funders and practitioners, beyond representatives of these groups in the NBLR Network. The May 2016 C&NN conference provided two opportunities for group discussion—the Blue Sky Funders’ Forum and an open forum for conference attendees. Both provided occasions to tap non-NBLR Network thinking regarding needs for additional research. The Natural Start Alliance nature-based preschool conference in August of 2016 and the Research Symposium associated with the October 2016 NAAEE conference offered opportunities for small group discussions with other constituencies regarding research gaps and needs. Finally, a member survey administered by NAAEE highlighted the work of the NBLR Network and collected additional input. For more details about NBLR Network strategies, processes for identifying and convening network members, members’ disciplines and fields of practice, and processes to gather information from other groups, see section Network Participants and Processes in and Jordan et al., (2017).

2.2 Generating a Literature Review to Guide Agenda Discussions

During the summer of 2016, three members of the network prepared a research review of nature’s impact on academic functioning, personal development and environmental stewardship, as well as explanatory variables related to learners and learning contexts. This review of existing research was a necessary foundation for identifying promising directions for future research. Details about the review scope, scale and procedures, including search keywords and operational definitions of key terms, are provided in the review article by Kuo et al., (2019, see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume). The literature review consisted of three main phases, which are described here.

Phase 1. The first step was to utilize recent peer-reviewed research summaries relevant to NBL and identify major themes related to NBL at the time of their publication. Articles covered in these previous reviews were added to the review database. The purpose of this phase was to understand the previous state of the literature and the main themes in the literature at the time of past reviews’ publication.

Phase 2. The second step was to collect peer reviewed journal articles that were published since the cut-off dates for previous reviews. This research was limited to articles published in English, although the research may have been conducted anywhere in the world, and it included work that addressed any aspect of learning and developmental outcomes associated with any aspect of nature, utilizing a variety of research methods. At this time, the purpose was to update and expand findings from the previous review papers, and to present the diversity of the literature as a whole.

Phase 3. The third and last step to identify relevant research was intended to extend and deepen results of the preceding steps. It included two processes. Because some topic areas yielded only a few articles during the initial searches, specific searches were conducted to determine if these were in fact little studied areas or under-sampled by the preceding searches. Additionally, foundational papers and reviews were sought that shed light on potential mechanisms that connect nature and learning, though these publications may have come from general research on topics such as learning, cognitive science, or developmental outcomes. For example, if existing studies indicated that learning in nature sparked children’s curiosity, then there was a search for papers which reviewed the general role of curiosity in learning. The purpose was to create a cohesive narrative that suggested mechanisms through which nature might affect learning outcomes.

A link to a spreadsheet of the articles retrieved during these three phases of the literature review is reproduced here:, as well as in the review by Kuo et al., (2019, see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume).

2.3 Identifying Directions for Future Research

A draft of the literature review was presented at the second NBLR Network retreat in November 2016. Network members considered the review, along with results of their own written reflections and the input gathered through C&NN and NAAEE. People worked in small groups to develop focal areas and questions for the research agenda. Because their goal was to advance research that can be translated into educational policy and practice, members proposed the following criteria, in addition to feasibility, as they deliberated.

Research agenda questions should do one or more of the following:

  1. 1.

    address major social issues in a compelling way

  2. 2.

    affect large populations

  3. 3.

    cross developmental stages

  4. 4.

    translate into educational policy to help teachers and school administrators enhance students’ academic success

  5. 5.

    suggest how institutions can promote stewardship values and behaviors

  6. 6.

    help designers and urban planners create places where children can connect with nature in meaningful ways

  7. 7.

    achieve valued public goals in cost-effective ways, in some cases even saving public money.

Applying these criteria, retreat attendees voted for questions they considered most important to advance the field of NBL.

During 2017, a report on the voting results and associated discussions was distributed to network members. Drawing on this report, reports on the C&NN conference Funders’ Forum and open forum, and NAAEE survey, the authors of this chapter condensed and categorized the questions generated, along with methodological recommendations, and circulated them to the NBLR Network in early 2018. Feedback was gathered through email and conference calls. Questions and recommendations developed as a result of this process, vetted by NBLR Network members, are presented in the sections below (see section Supplemental Material: Agenda Consensus and Challenges in

3 Priority Research Questions

Table 1 presents the key research areas and questions that emerged through this agenda setting process, with three areas of emphasis: Learning Outcomes and Differential Effects, Mechanisms of Influence, and Implications for Policy and Practice. Where some contributors to the agenda approached a general question from specific perspectives, these variations on the general question are bulleted. Topics that suggest the range of areas that a question might explore are indicated in italics.

Table 1 A framework for research to advance the understanding and implementation of Nature-based Learning (NBL)

As authors of this paper, we have observed that the study of NBL reflects the convergence of two research traditions: one interested in the influence of experiences in nature on learning across the curriculum, personal development, and environmental stewardship; and the other concerned with the influence of natural settings and surroundings on conditions for learning. The first tradition has a long history. Fieldwork in nature to learn subjects like biology and geology is well established in environmental education and science education, and the resurgence of school ground greening and school gardens has created conditions for “fieldwork” immediately outside school doors (for research reviews of different forms of outdoor learning, see Becker et al., 2017; Dillon et al., 2006; Malone & Waite, 2016; Stern et al., 2014; Williams & Dixon, 2013). The use of the environment as an integrating context to engage students in math, science, social studies, language arts and other disciplines as they study the world beyond school walls, including natural areas, is the domain of place-based education (Chawla & Derr, 2012; Smith & Sobel, 2010). There is also a long history of observations of children’s informal learning as they play and explore on natural school grounds and find nature in their local environment (Chawla, 2015). The questions in Table 1 indicate that many aspects of outdoor learning still need to be better understood, but work in this area has much to build on as it moves forward.

The second tradition—investigating the influence of nature on conditions for learning—has emerged recently, demonstrating that vegetation and other elements of nature in classrooms, on school grounds, and in the proximity of schools are associated with more effective cognitive functioning, decreased stress, improved health, and enhanced classroom and social learning environments—all of which can facilitate learning and higher student achievement (see reviews by Becker et al., 2017; Chawla, 2015; Gifford & Chen, 2016; Kuo et al., 2019, see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume). Many studies of this topic suggest productive directions for further investigation. Whereas the first research tradition focuses on learning in nature to enhance knowledge, skills and personal development, this second tradition involves children’s basic wellbeing and capacity to learn efficiently. Recently, and partly with the assistance of the NSF grant to promote the Science of Nature-Based Learning, people from these different backgrounds have been sharing their work at conferences and other professional meetings.

The questions in Table 1 suggest an ambitious agenda for moving an understanding of NBL forward. They seek to understand how learning in nature affects what children learn, how they learn, and how it varies based on age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, special needs, and individual differences. They investigate the relative benefits of learning in nature and through conventional classroom-based instruction, and learning in settings where there is nature in and around buildings with learning in predominantly hardscaped, built surroundings. Outcomes of interest cover academic performance, practical skills, personal development, and environmental stewardship. Other questions seek to identify mechanisms of action in NBL and find causal explanations for the outcomes observed. To create effective conditions for NBL, the research agenda includes a number of practical questions about how to prepare teachers to work successfully in nature and encourage their adoption of this approach. Possibilities for using technology to augment learning in nature also merit exploration (such as approaches identified in Kahn, 2011). Not least, the research agenda asks whether learning in nature can address major societal issues by moderating the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on children’s outcomes, and how these benefits might be attained at reasonable costs. Although these questions outline an ambitious agenda for future research, promising results of past studies suggest that further investment in this field may significantly benefit children and their societies.

In drafting this research agenda, funders, researchers who focus on school-based initiatives, and practitioners emphasized the importance of systematically investigating how to most effectively disseminate results of NBL research and encourage implementation. It is important to match growing evidence of benefits of learning in nature with outreach to teachers, school administrators, schoolboards, schools of education, child care center directors and people in other institutions who have opportunities to apply nature-based approaches. Effective outreach depends on understanding barriers to the integration of NBL into teacher preparation and practice, how barriers can be lowered, and the types of data and messages that will help practitioners understand the value of NBL. Similar questions need to be asked relative to reaching the public at large, in order to build public support for NBL.

Though not comprehensive, the questions offered in the research agenda have the potential to significantly advance our knowledge and ability to inform policy and practice in an array of areas. Given the wide range of subjects covered by the questions proposed for this research agenda, it is reasonable to ask where to begin or what to prioritize. In Table 2 we offer a set of “game-changing” questions—research questions that are most likely to yield critical information for practice and policy decision-making.

Table 2 Examples of “Game-Changing” research questions and justifications

4 Recommendations for Future Research Approaches

Significant scientific advances are made not only by asking the most relevant and important questions, but by utilizing approaches that will yield the most useful, valid and reliable information. What general recommendations can be made to strengthen future research in this field?

The researchers, practitioners and funders who helped define this research agenda recommend a more coordinated approach to NBL research in the future. In part, this will require periodic syntheses of what is already known in relation to the questions in Tables 1 and 2, to guide further efforts to fill in gaps in understanding. To facilitate research syntheses, C&NN established an online Research Library that deposits, on an ongoing basis, lay summaries of new studies related to NBL as well as other aspects of children’s relationship with nature ( C&NN’s monthly Research Digest has begun to curate existing research on selected themes, such as equitable access to nature’s benefits ( C&NN and NAAEE now provide a central location to access the combined resources of C&NN’s and NAAEE’s research libraries ( to provide comprehensive coverage of the two traditions of investigation reflected in this research agenda.

More coordinated research will also require the consistent use of adequate descriptions of study contexts as well as consistent measures of study variables (see also Kuo et al., 2018, see Kuo, Browning and Penner: Refueling Students in Flight: Lessons in Nature May Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement in this volume). Qualitative and quantitative researchers need to specify learning settings and activities, including elements of nature in each setting, length of children’s time in nature, and how children engage with nature—whether it is a passive view or background, or they use it actively through their own autonomous exploration or encounters facilitated by teachers, peers or other people. Complete descriptions are important for understanding and applying results and identifying potential causal mechanisms that underlie learning.

Coordinated progress in quantitative research and experimental designs will be furthered by agreement on valid, reliable measures of nature exposure, mediating variables and learning outcomes. Many measures already exist, and they need to be evaluated to understand which are most effective with different age groups and in different learning contexts. A working group has completed a report for measures of nature connection (Salazar et al., 2020), but similar evaluations are needed of other key variables important for this research agenda. It would be helpful to have an online bank of NBL measures that researchers can draw from, along with examples of studies where they have been applied and recommendations for their appropriate use. This would encourage more reliable comparisons across studies.

NBL research needs to move forward through complementary methodological approaches. Different methods are required to investigate questions of different kinds, and therefore the field of NBL will be advanced most effectively by different methods and mixed-method approaches. For example, to understand how NBL and classroom-based approaches compare or complement each other, it can be helpful to begin with observations and interviews with teachers and students, in order to identify similarities and differences. Qualitative results may suggest how settings with and without nature afford different opportunities for teaching and learning, which may lead to different outcomes; and these outcomes can then be tested in more controlled ways through experimental designs. Experimental designs can also investigate the mechanisms that underlie results. As experiments and correlational studies establish with increasing confidence key variables that affect learning, the case builds for investments in longitudinal research that can track the effect of key variables over time. Some objectives, such as quantifying the effect of learning in nature preschools on performance in elementary school, can be addressed with relatively short-term studies; others, such as tracing the effect of childhood learning in nature on environmental stewardship values and behaviors in adulthood, require long-term studies.

NBL research will be advanced through collaboration between academic researchers and practitioners and through multidisciplinary and multiethnic perspectives. In participatory research, practitioners, parents and young people themselves can help at different stages of research, including defining questions, designing and implementing studies, interpreting results and disseminating outcomes. The audiences that researchers seek to reach are best qualified to identify the type of information that will catch their attention and resonate with their values and practical considerations. For example, the experiment reported by Kuo et al., (2018, see Kuo, Browning and Penner: Refueling Students in Flight: Lessons in Nature May Boost Subsequent Classroom Engagement in this volume) was designed to test the validity of teachers’ common fear that if they take a class to an outdoor setting in nature, students will never settle down to concentrate on lessons after they return to the school building (finding, in contrast, that students concentrated better in their subsequent indoor class). In a similar way, researchers can identify NBL outcomes that matter most to teachers, school administrators, parents and children themselves as promising directions for research efforts.

5 Conclusion

Existing research suggests that NBL has many positive outcomes for children’s learning and development. It suggests promising directions for future investigation; but to move forward, NBL research will benefit from a clear definition and a coordinated agenda. This paper has attempted to provide this framework by presenting a definition and a list of priority questions that have been drafted and reviewed by academic researchers from diverse disciplines, practitioners, environmental organization representatives, and funders.

Priority questions for future research cluster into three domains:

  1. 1.

    learning outcomes, including understanding how learning in nature compares with learning in classrooms, preschools and child care centers, and how outcomes may vary by age, gender, socioeconomic background, ethnic background, individual differences, or special needs;

  2. 2.

    the mechanisms that explain relationships between nature and learning; and

  3. 3.

    how to most effectively apply research to policy and practice.

This Research Agenda also suggests that a few questions have the potential of uncovering relationships between nature and learning that could have “game changing” effects on the practices of policy makers, educators, school administrators, urban planners, designers, staff in nature centers and parks, parents, and other people who influence children’s access to nature. With the aim of enhancing conditions for children’s learning and development, this agenda seeks to accelerate progress on the science of NBL.

Recommended Further Reading

  1. 1.

    Becker, C., Lauterbach, G., Spengler, S., Dettweiler, U., & Mess, F. (2017). Effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings: A systematic review on students’ learning, social and health dimensions. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 14. (accessed 14/05/2021).

  2. 2.

    Kuo, M., Barnes, M., & Jordan, C. (2019). Do experiences with nature promote learning? Converging evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 10:305. (accessed 14/05/2021). see Kuo, Barnes and Jordan: Do Experiences with Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-And-Effect Relationship in this volume.

  3. 3.

    Miller, N. C., Kumar, S., Pearce, K. L., Baldock, K. L., (2021). The outcomes of nature-based learning for primary school aged children: A systematic review of quantitative research. Environmental Education Research, 27(8), 1115–1140.