Impact of nature-based early learning and childcare settings on the health and wellbeing of children, families and communities

Nature-based Early Learning and Childcare settings, also known as forest kindergartens or nature preschool, are where children spend most of their time outdoors engaging with natural spaces (e.g. parks, forests) and elements. It is thought that this type of provision may provide the same, if not more, benefits beyond the ‘norm’ for children’s health and development. We know that exposure to nature through, for example, greenspaces or beaches, is important for a broad range of outcomes, such as increasing physical activity and improving mental health. However, less is known about the specific role of nature-based early learning and childcare on children’s physical, cognitive, social, emotional and cognitive development. By enhancing the evidence base in this area, we can build a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms by which outcomes may improve. With a more robust evidence base, our long-term aim is to better inform national and international policy, planning, and practice, in turn optimising the experiences and outcomes of children, practitioners, and wider childcare settings.

Since beginning this research programme, we have undertaken several projects underpinned by our position that nature-based early learning and childcare sits within a wider and more complex system that influences children’s development. This approach is known as a whole systems approach and recognises the importance of multiple levels of influence on child health and well-being, including individual characteristics, social relationships, childcare, community-level factors, and policy. To understand how these different levels interconnect, we have developed a growing programme of work, with specific research questions reflecting these complex relationships on the health and wellbeing of children, their families, childcare staff, and the wider community.

In general, we subscribe to the idea that we need to i) understand what it is and how it is delivered; ii) what health and wellbeing outcomes are potentially influenced by it; iii) understand what works, how, for whom, in what circumstances, and to what extent; and iv) support the decision makers, early learning and childcare centres, and practitioners to optimise their current models of delivery.

Findings thus far have contributed to the growing evidence base on nature-based early learning childcare, as well as supporting policy and practice in this area.


Over a short period of time, our nature-based early learning and childcare research has amassed ten publications, presentations at international conferences, knowledge exchange events, and public engagement opportunities.


Partners and Collaborators




  1. Martin, A., Clarke, J., Johnstone, A., McCrorie, P., Langford, R., Simpson, S.A. and Kipping, R., 2023. A qualitative study of parental strategies to enable pre-school children's outdoor and nature experiences during COVID-19 restrictions. Health & Place, p.102967.
  2. Zucca, C., McCrorie, P., Johnstone, A., Chambers, S., Chng, N.R., Traynor, O. and Martin, A., 2023. Outdoor nature-based play in early learning and childcare centres: Identifying the determinants of implementation using causal loop diagrams and social network analysis. Health & Place, 79, p.102955.
  3. Traynor, O., Martin, A., Johnstone, A., Chng, N.R., Kenny, J. and McCrorie, P., 2022. A low-cost method for understanding how nature-based early learning and childcare impacts on children’s health and wellbeingFrontiers in psychology,3610.
  4. Traynor, O., McCrorie, P., Chng, N.R. and Martin, A., 2022. Evaluating Outdoor Nature-Based Early Learning and Childcare Provision for Children Aged 3 Years: Protocol of a Feasibility and Pilot Quasi-Experimental Design. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(12), p.7461.
  5. Jidovtseff, B., Pirard, F., Martin, A., McCrorie, P., Vidal, A. and Pools, E., 2022. Parental Assessment of Benefits and of Dangers Determines Children’s Permission to Play Outdoors. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(18), p.11467.
  6. Johnstone, Avril, et al. (2022) Nature-based early childhood education and children’s social, emotional and cognitive development: a mixed-methods systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health10: 5967.
  7. Johnstone, Avril, et al. (2022) Nature-Based Early Childhood Education and Children’s Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, Motor Competence, and Other Physical Health Outcomes: A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review. Journal of Physical Activity and Health6: 456-472
  8. Martin, A. and McCrorie, P., 2022. The positives of nature-based play. In: Candiracci, S., Heinisch, L. M., Moschonas, D. and Robinson, S. (eds.) Nature-Based Play: Fostering Connections for Children’s Wellbeing and Climate Resilience. Arup, pp. 13-19. ISBN 9780992950149
  9. Johnstone, A. et al (2021) Nature-based early learning and childcare - influence on children's health, wellbeing and development: literature review. Scottish Government, Edinburgh.
  10. Johnstone, A. et al. (2020) Nature-based early childhood education for child health, wellbeing and development: a mixed-methods systematic review protocol.Systematic Reviews, 9, 226.


Ongoing research


  1. The investigation of parental and educator perceptions of risks and benefits of outdoor activities and play with children aged 2-5 years
  2. PhD research on assessing the feasibility of evaluating nature-based play and learning in Glasgow
  3. Exploring differences in microbiome of children exposed to nature-based vs traditional childcare in areas of high and low deprivation.


Contact details

This programme of work is led by Dr Anne Martin and Dr Paul McCrorie

Research Fellows |

We would be delighted to hear from any prospective students who are interested in conducting a PhD on the topic of nature-based early learning and childcare.

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