Is the NAture-Based Education Rating Scale (NABERS) for You?

With nature-based early childhood education growing in popularity, more and more organizations are seeing the benefits of this educational approach. 

The only problem is that because this philosophy is so new, early childhood professionals sometimes feel at a loss when trying to incorporate nature-based philosophies and practices into their current program. They wonder how they can accurately assess the application of nature-based education in their program so they can uncover areas of improvement and implement changes as necessary. They worry that incorporating nature-based education could affect the quality rating score of their program.

At Kaplan, we understand these concerns and the desire to incorporate nature-based education in your early childhood program/s. In this article, you’ll learn about the purpose of the NAture-Based Education Rating Scale (NABERS), the 5 areas of your classroom that NABERS assesses, and how education professionals, researchers, and policy makers can use it to evaluate the quality of nature-based education in early childhood programs.

What Is the Purpose of a Nature-Based Early Childhood Program?

The goal of nature-based education is to educate children in developmentally appropriate ways while also fostering positive experiences that promote environmental education. With this approach, the goal is to allow children to learn with nature, instead of only learning about nature. 

For example, a child playing outside on a cool, fall morning, might ask their teacher why the green leaves on a nearby tree are suddenly turning yellow. This opens up a conversation between the teacher and child about topics like seasonal changes and the process of photosynthesis. Instead of the teacher leading these discussions and educating the child about nature, the child is leading the discussion and learning with nature. 

Research is still ongoing as to the effects of nature-based education and its role in child development. However, studies suggest that children who attend nature-based programs have a higher development of motor skills (FjØrtoft, 2001), an increase in resilience (Ernst, Juckett, and Sobel, 2021), and a decrease in ADHD symptoms (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2009).

A young boy is outdoors, sitting on the ground beside a teacher, both are leaning over a piece of paper while the boy draws on it with a pencil. Photos courtesy of Creekside Forest School at Indian Creek Nature Center 

What Are 5 Ways the NABERS Tools Measure Nature-Based Education in the Classroom?

According to the book, Evaluating Natureness: Measuring the Quality of Nature-Based Classrooms in Pre-K through 3rd Grade, “The NAture-Based Education Rating Scale (NABERS) is a set of tools that uses measurable features to determine how rooted a program is in nature-based education. One tool focuses on Pre-K while the other focuses on K-3rd grade. These tools provide a way for early childhood practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to collect information about an early childhood program and how it integrates nature-based education.”

Typical early childhood programs use tools like the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) to assess the quality of their early learning environments. Nature-based programs do not always score well with this type of assessment because the way their program operates is so different from conventional early childhood approaches. 

We spoke with Kelli Kennon-Lane, the director of education at Indian Creek Nature Center in Iowa, who shares her experience with using rating scales for a nature-based program:

“Before NABERS existed, we only had ECERS to use. Maybe 50% of the benchmarks of the ECERS scale were applicable to our program. Like how we serve snack, for example. We have snack just like all traditional schools have snacktime, but how we serve and execute snack is very different. We serve snack trailside, so children are essentially having a picnic. But the fact that children aren’t sitting at a table penalizes us. This is the type of thing that’s discouraging.

A group of children sit on a blue blanket placed in the middle of a woodland area. The children are eating snack while a female teacher in a yellow shirt stands in front of them, reading a book aloud. Photos courtesy of Creekside Forest School at Indian Creek Nature Center 

When NABERS came out, we finally saw how to apply traditional concepts to a non-traditional environment. This is so affirming to our team!” 

The NABERS tools will help you understand how well your organization is integrating nature-based early childhood practices. With this score, you can show new student families and community members the type of educational experience you’re delivering to the children in your care. These tools encourage ongoing reflection of your program so that you can make improvements to your nature-based focus, if necessary. 

Here are the five different categories these tools assess to determine an appropriate rating score.

1. Staffing

NABERS looks at the qualifications of staff and teachers within a nature-based program and how well they support, plan, and implement nature-based approaches. 

To score high on the rating scale, a program must show that teachers and staff have training in both early childhood education and environmental education. If a program scores low in this area, professional development and additional nature-based training may be necessary.

2. Curriculum Practices

While all early childhood programs provide children with developmentally appropriate education, a nature-based program incorporates environmental education. When evaluating the amount of nature-based focus a program has, consider the structure of day-to-day activities and the outdoor experiences of the children. 

To score high in this category, a program will need to establish a curriculum that centers around nature and creates outdoor experiences that allow children to learn with nature.

3. Community Partnerships

It is important for nature-based programs to partner with community experts that play a role in educating children and can highlight aspects of their local nature. A community expert could be an ecologist, a local nature educator, or anyone who has expertise in the field of nature-based education. 

To score high in this category, a community expert must make regular visits to the program, assist children with lessons and activities, and provide families with local nature-based resources.

4. Environment

A program’s environment includes indoor classrooms, outdoor play spaces, and the areas beyond the program site. To score high in this area, all three of these environments need to incorporate materials that reflect the local environment and nature. 

Indoor classrooms should feature materials and design elements that offer connections to nature. Outdoor play spaces should provide opportunities for children to connect with nature by digging, balancing, and exploring their natural ecosystems. The areas beyond a center can include prairies, forests, wetlands, or local parks, and classrooms should make regular visits to expand the educational experiences of the children in attendance.

5. Family Engagement

Clear communication with families about their child/ren and what they are learning in a nature-based program is important. This communication promotes family involvement in the classroom and allows these programs to share resources that can support children while they are at home. 

To score high in this area, communication with families should be frequent and include posting mission statements, sending newsletters, sharing pictures of student artwork, etc.

A female teacher wearing a pink and grey beanie is standing outdoors, holding a clipboard with a piece of paper attached to it. She is writing on the paper with a red pen. Photos courtesy of Creekside Forest School at Indian Creek Nature Center 

Using NABERS to Evaluate Your Early Childhood Program

When using the NABERS tools, you want to rate individual classrooms rather than the program as a whole. You’ll want to observe indoor and outdoor classroom time for at least three hours on a “typical” school day. Avoid any days that feature special guests, school-wide events, or extreme weather conditions that could limit the time children spend outdoors. 

All observers should do their best to minimize interactions with children, teachers, and lesson activities while they are rating a classroom. Doing so could lead to missed observations or altered findings.

How To Use NABERS as an Early Childhood Practitioner

If you want to create a nature-based program from scratch, the NABERS tools can guide you through the process. You will find the rating scale inside the book, Evaluating Natureness, along with tips to help you implement nature-based educational philosophies in your classroom/s. 

If you currently operate a traditional or nature-based program, you can use NABERS to better understand where you fall on the rating scale and identify areas of your program that need improvement. 

Kelli Kennon-Lane, the director of education at Indian Creek Nature Center in Iowa, shares more about her experience using NABERS in her school:

“For me, as someone who works in nature-based educational leadership, this tool proves to me that we are a legitimate educational institution. There are so many things that don’t apply to us or that we have to modify so that we don’t change our mission, vision, and how we do our work. This tool validates the vision of our school, the reason why nature-based education is important, and provides a sense of legitimacy for state and federal licensing.” 

A teacher in a blue coat plays music on an orange ukulele walks in front of a group of children on a dirt path, they are all smiling. Photos courtesy of Creekside Forest School at Indian Creek Nature Center 

How To Use NABERS as a Researcher

Researchers are continuing to study the effects of nature-based education on child development and how this philosophy compares with traditional early childhood education. The NABERS tool gives researchers a way to determine child outcomes vs. the educational approach in the classroom. 

When multiple researchers are observing a classroom, there is always the risk that someone will misinterpret what they should be looking for. The book, Evaluating Natureness, includes resources that clarify what certain aspects mean and what the different rating scores might look like in practice. Anyone researching nature-based education and observing your center can use this tool as a reference so that all rating scores are reliable.

The NABERS tools emerged out of early childhood research. The Pre-K tool is based on the dissertation research (2012) of Dr.Patti Bailie, co-author of the book, Evaluating Natureness. The K-3rd Grade tool is based on a recent study conducted by Rachel Larimore, Ph.D., Arianna Pikus, MS, Dr. Lori Skibbe, and David Sobel. Rachel Larimore, Ph.D. and Arianna Pikus are also co-authors of the book, Evaluating Natureness.

How To Use NABERS as an Early Education Policy Maker

Most states have a quality rating improvement system for early childhood programs. The problem is that some of the criteria they base their scores on do not apply to nature-based programs. These programs suffer from lower quality scores, even though they provide quality educational experiences. The hope is that the NABERS tools will give states an alternate pathway to assess the quality of an early childhood center. 

“Our Board of Directors asks us to measure the success of our school and report back annually. They want us to measure our success in four different ways, one of those being our rating scale data (ECERS and NABERS). We have used the ECERS scale and my staff are trained in ECERS, but it’s really hard to apply those parameters to our program. So when NABERS was released, we purchased the text and got the ball rolling. We are so pleased to now be able to provide a report with integrity to our board to show that our school is successful.” - Kelli Kennon-Lane, Indian Creek Nature Center

Time To Evaluate Your Early Childhood Program

You now have a better understanding of the NAture-Based Education Rating Scale and how to use it to evaluate the quality of nature-based education in early childhood programs. No matter if you are an early childhood practitioner, researcher, or policy maker, this tool can help you evaluate the amount of nature-focus your program currently implements and make changes if/when necessary. 

Ready to use NABERS to assess your early childhood program? Click here to buy the book, Evaluating Natureness, which includes the rating scale and clear instructions for anyone conducting classroom observations. 

Buy the Book, Evaluating Natureness: Measuring the Quality of Nature-Based Classrooms in Pre-K through 3rd Grade

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