The ECAN (Early Childhood Action in Nature) Project

Here at HHNM, we believe in Nature Play – for kids and adults! Time spent in nature makes us calmer, happier, and healthier, no matter our age. For children, engaging in unstructured play in a natural environment has the added benefit of helping them develop collaboration, socialization, gross-motor skills, and appropriate risk-taking.

Also, interviews with environmentalists indicate that their love of nature began with frequent outdoor play in early childhood. Those interviewed had something else in common, too: a caring adult in their lives that encouraged Nature Play.

With that in mind, we designed the Early Childhood Action in Nature (ECAN) project which was funded by a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and implemented in 2015 and 2016. Because HHNM’s mission is to create responsible caretakers of the environment, the hypothesis for the project was that if more parents and teachers value and promote outdoor play, children will spend more time in nature – and will be more likely to grow up to become caretakers of the environment.

Twenty-seven preschools and kindergartens were selected to participate. We provided professional development for the teachers and class visits to Grasshopper Grove, our Nature Play demonstration site, reaching 193 adults and 1,462 children. We also offered Nature Play programs to weekend visitors at Grasshopper Grove.

The grant required us to bring in external evaluators to determine if ECAN was having the desired effect. PEER Associates developed the needed survey and analysis tools for participating educators and public visitors to Grasshopper Grove. According to PEER’s Chris Hardee, “PEER was a good fit because of our experience not only with Nature Play, but with environmental and place-based education initiatives around the country.”

The results are in! PEER’s analysis showed a dramatic shift in the attitudes of educators and parents after participating in ECAN, and an increase in the frequency of Nature Play. In other words, adults at home and school understood the value of Nature Play and were supporting children in more outdoor play, for longer periods.

One parent wrote in their survey, “[I’m] forever grateful to HHNM for bringing us closer to nature and each other, and teaching our children how to be good stewards of the earth.”

“The success of the ECAN project in promoting nature play is inspiring.” says HHNM Executive Director Jackie Grant, “We look forward to sharing our ‘lessons learned’ in professional circles nationally and will continue to build a Nature Play community closer to home.”

To see the Executive Summary of the ECAN Program Evaluation, click here.

For the expanded Summary Outline of Evaluation Findings (2016), click here.