ECO Institute 2024: Educating Children Outdoors for Early Childhood Educators


Instructors: Jenna Plouffe & Ken Benton
July 22 - 26 2024 | $1300
($1750 with 3 graduate credits)
Class Size: 12-20 students
See below for financial support info



he purpose of this course is to apply early childhood learning curricula beyond the classroom, while immersed in and participating with nature as a learning partner. The course provides inquiry-based learning through intensive experiential lessons, provocations and discussions held entirely outdoors. Participants will explore, create and experiment within specific ECO lessons catered to the daily topic. Daily reflection and mindfulness practices are an integral part of the nature immersion learning model and will be offered in the course. A successful nature immersion model allows for children to have choices, to be respected and trusted, and to take risks. Participants will develop an understanding of risks vs. hazards to prepare for and encourage safe risk taking in the outdoor classroom.  

During this course, we experience a week-long rhythm of place-based curriculum within which, the daily rhythm of the core routines are embedded. This daily rhythm mirrors the experience of Pre-K students during a typical day of learning outdoors. Participants will close the week by envisioning integration of the philosophies and practices that are built into a nature immersion experience. NBNC curriculum ideas will be given to participants to use in their own programs. Our emergent and nature based curriculum meets ECE standards. Scaffolding techniques and provocations will be demonstrated during the course. 

Course Goals 

  • Instill in teachers the core routines of an outdoor classroom so they feel competent managing their own nature immersion curriculum outdoors.
  • Facilitate experiences and learning with seasonal themes which meet VELS.
  • Engage participants in dialogue around methods of connecting children with their natural communities in order to support a nature pedagogy. 
  • Build upon existing strengths and opportunities within a learning community to support experiences outdoors.

Course Objectives

  • Practice conducting site and risk assessments in an outdoor classroom.
  • Practice safety protocols within the context of an outdoor classroom.
  • Address potential logistical challenges in starting a program.
  • Share songs, games, stories and provocations to support a  nature immersion curriculum.
  • Provide time for collaboration among participants in creating a project/program of their own.

About the Instructor(s)

Jenna Plouffe is the Lead Teacher of Forest Preschool. She has 14 years of experience with nature based education in public education and at NBNC. Ken Benton is the Director of Education with North Branch Nature Center, where he has been working for 10 years. Other members of NBNC’s highly skilled staff will join us throughout the week. More about Jenna and Ken.

North Branch Nature Center is a nationally recognized leader in nature-based education for children and adults. Our place-based and inquiry-based philosophy recognizes nature as our most dynamic, enriching, rigorous, and inclusive classroom. Healthy, inspired learning and development depends on immersive, curiosity-driven nature exploration, cultivated by expert teaching and mentorship. From our acclaimed Forest Preschool and Educating Children Outdoors (ECO) flagship programs, to our summer camps, community workshops, and professional institutes, NBNC offers a lifetime of learning and growth through deepened connections with the environment.

Recommended Readings

  • Butler, Amy. Educating Children Outdoors: Lessons in Nature-Based Learning. Order for Shipping or Pickup at NBNC.
  • Sara Knight. Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play (A good accompaniment for site assessment projects)
  • David Sobel. Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens (this is a handbook for beginning your own program or school) 
  • Rachel A. Larimore. Preschool Beyond Walls: Blending Early Childhood Education and Nature-Based Learning
  • Juliette Robertson. Dirty Teaching or Messy Maths (Examples of lessons and experiences happening outdoors)
  • North American Association for Environmental Education. Nature-Based Preschool Professional Practice Guidebook
  • Hanscomb, Angela. Barefoot & Balanced.
  • Claire Warden. Learning with Nature: Embedding Outdoor Practice.
  • Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.

Lodging & Meals

Meals and beverages will not be provided. We ask that you please bring your own lunch and snacks. There are many hotels and AirBnB options within 20 minutes of North Branch Nature Center. Camping onsite at NBNC is available by permission.


Course runs Monday-Friday from roughly 8 am until 4 pm each day. Exact timing will be communicated as the course approaches. The course will be located at North Branch Nature Center.

Academic Credit / Professional Development Options

This course qualifies for 3 graduate-level education or science credits for an additional $450 course fee. Course is accredited by Vermont State University Center for Schools.

For students transferring credit to another institution, it is each student’s responsibility to ensure that their home institution will accept the credit.

Participants pursuing academic credit will be required to complete a final project additional assignment focused on curriculum development. The final day of the course will include time for beginning this project.

All participants qualify for 40 hours of professional development hours and continuing education units. Certificates of completion are provided at the conclusion of the course.

Cancellation Policy

While we realize that unexpected circumstances arise that are out of our control, North Branch Nature Center cannot guarantee refunds for registrations cancelled within 30 days of the course.  If a cancellation occurs within this window, NBNC will, if possible, attempt to fill the space from our wait list and provide a full refund.

School Purchase Orders

It is the participant’s responsibility to submit a purchase order request to their school immediately upon registration, and to provide a purchase order number and invoicing contact information to NBNC in a timely manner. Participants must have either provided NBNC a purchase order number, or made arrangements to do so, within 14 days of registration.

Financial Support

Vermont residents are encouraged to apply for a VSAC Advancement Grant. Please contact us ([email protected]) to inquire about other financial aid options.

North Branch Nature Center

713 Elm Street
Montpelier, Vermont 05602
(802) 229-6206

Hours: Center Open Monday-Friday 9-4
Trails Open 24/7