The focus of this review will concentrate on addressing the issues and concepts surrounding the subject of Outdoor Provision in the Early Years setting. The review will begin by looking at the current literature supporting the suggestion that play has been identified as an essential part of early childhood education, touching on recent educational literature as well as a look at past theorist’s views and how this has affected early years practice to the present day. The review will then follow on from this with the main body of the essay discussing the literature and research on the outdoor environment within the early years setting focusing on the positive and negative areas surrounding the topic. In order to accomplish this, the review will analyse and synthesise current educational literature surrounding the main issues and ideas on the outdoors. In relation to the outdoors, the review will also touch upon issues raised regarding the relationship between the outdoor environment and boys’ attainment and the importance of equal opportunities within early years settings. The review will conclude with reference to all of the findings from recent educational literature relating to the outdoors and the issues and ideas surrounding it.
“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”(Fredrich Froebel n/d)
It has been continually reported and researched, that we expect too much too soon from our young children today. Early Years Practitioners are under pressure from government statistics and league tables to conform to a formal style of teaching too early, but how do we resist top down curriculum pressure? The time given to childhood is continually being eroded as children are rushed towards the adult world. “Rather than being receivers of information, young children need to enjoy the experience of discovery, so that they can apply knowledge, concepts and skills, and take calculated risks in a structured rather than a directed environment. In all activities children need to play.” (Warden 1999).
Have we forgotten about the importance of childhood, the importance of ‘Play’? Surely it is impossible to stop children from playing? Such a strong natural drive must have a function.
“The disappearance of childhood is a contemporary phenomenon arising from a disappearing understanding of the true needs of early childhood” (Lynne Oldfield, 2001: 5)
‘Play’ has always been a topic under debate among educators and not only in the present day, as there are also vast amounts of research from past educational theorists that both support and challenge the idea. Someone once wrote that “defining play is like looking for crocks of gold at the end of a rainbow”, which seems like an appropriate definition. Play has been defined in various different ways by different theorists and throughout history philosophers and theorists have watched and questioned ‘play’. As far back as the 18th century Froebel was highly aware of the role of environmental influences in determining the full realisation of the child’s potential and his respect for children’s play was profound; “Playing is the self education of the child” (Froebel 1815).
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Also in the 18th century Rousseau’s work had its emphasis on freedom for children which was later criticised for encouraging parents to allow their children to be noisy, undisciplined and unkempt. His writing was said to be responsible for this ‘provoking, obstinate, insolent, impudent, arrogant generation’.
Almost 300 years later this sounds all too familiar. By letting our children ‘play’ are we creating destructive members of the community or are we helping them to become independent, confident and capable learners? Susan Isaac’s theory would definitely agree with the latter of the two statements, in the 1920’s and 30’s. Isaacs developed both a curriculum and a means of understanding young children’s development based on her observations of their play. She wrote that, “Play is a means of living and of understanding life”. Neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, (1996) also lends support to this view when she writes, “Play is fun with serious consequences”. The early years writer, Tina Bruce, also defines play as “something involving choice and firsthand experience”. ( Tina Bruce 2001) .
Although research about play based learning has been rife since the 17th century, it is only within the last few years that the government has recognised its importance and incorporated it into the curriculum as an essential part of early years, “Playing allows children to develop a sense of well being; develops their emotional responses and improves their interpersonal skills. It involves exploration and creativity, helping children think in a flexible manner, developing the creative process, language skills and learning and problem skills.” (DCSF, 2008).
Government documentation has not only highlighted the importance of a play based curriculum but also the importance of the outdoor environment. It states that all settings should provide “continuous outdoor provision for all children” (EFYS 2008). It is here that we move on to the importance of the outdoors as an extension to the ‘play’ within the early years. ‘Young children should be outdoors as much as indoors and need a well-designed, well-organised and integrated indoor-outdoor environment, preferably with indoors and outdoors available simultaneously’ (The Shared Vision & Values for Outdoor Play in the Early Years, 2004)
Drake looks at the work of other early years professionals and she identifies the outside area as a “valuable resource” that should be viewed as “an extension of the whole setting in which all other areas of provision can be set upâ€¦” (Drake 2001:3). Later these findings were also supported by Helen Bilton in an early years education lecture where she stated, “The outdoor area is a complete learning environment, which caters for all children’s needs – cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social and physical. It should be available every day alongside the indoor class and throughout the year”. (Helen Bilton 2010). Claire Warden is also of the same opinion as the author of ‘Nurture through Nature’, uniting together play and the outdoors: “Play is the means through which children find stimulation, well being and happiness, and is the means through which they grow physically, intellectually and emotionally. Play is the most important thing for children to do outside and the most relevant way of offering learning outdoors.”(Warden 2008)
The outdoor environment
In Sept 2008 the EYFS was introduced as a government policy document which stated, “A rich and varied environment supports children’s learning and development. It gives them confidence to explore and learn in secure and safe, yet challenging indoor and outdoor spaces” (EYFS Commitment 3:3).
The debate about the outdoors and its importance within the early years has been discussed widely and is rarely out of the media. Not only has this been identified as an essential part of childhood education since the 18th Century but there had also been extensive research and literature produced to confirm its value and not just of opinion, but scientific research. The debate is not any more about whether or not the outdoors has a positive effect on childhood as this question has already been answered in abundance, but we still have to question how and why does it have a positive effect on children’s early years education and what are the potential benefits for learning outdoors – ‘Nurture through Nature?’.
What better way to get a good perspective of the benefits of the outdoors than to ask the children themselves? Young children are spending increasing amounts of time in educational settings which then places a big responsibility on the early year’s practitioners and the learning opportunities they provide, but what do children think about the outdoor environment? In conjunction with the ‘Every Child Matters’ document which maintains an emphasis on listening to children, a research project, ‘Mosaic’ was initiated to find out. It was found through observations that children thought that their outdoor environment was very important. In surveys with young children, particularly those carried out to inform the development of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework, being outdoors always comes out at the top of their priorities and favorite things in nursery.
The special nature of the outdoors seems to fulfill the way young children want to play, learn and develop in so many ways. Perhaps this is why children love to be outside so much! It certainly gives a strong rationale and justification for developing rich outdoor provision and providing as much access to it as possible.
Creating environments to support boys learning
The importance of the outdoor environment in the early years has already been firmly recognised, but some aspects of it in particular seem to support boys more in their natural learning styles. One of the issues raised within the early years over the last few years has been the underachievement of boys compared to girls. There have been various reasons addressed and researched but something which comes up frequently in current literature is the question “Are we planning the correct environments to support boy’s styles of learning?” As a result of this apparent lack of achievement, research had been undertaken to find out the ways in which boys learn and there has been strong evidence to suggest that learning and playing in the outdoor environment will help in raising boy’s attainment.
Bilton supports the view by stating, “Boy’s brains develop in a different sequence to girls and this could have some bearing on teaching and learning. Boys develop concepts of movement and space first so it makes sense for teaching and learning to take place in an environment such as the outdoors” (Bilton 2002:73). Boys are no less able than girls, so it seems to fall at the feet of the professionals in the early years. Are practitioners knowledgeable enough about the differing gender learning styles to offer a fair and accessible curriculum to all children? In the early years foundation stage booklet it states that, “All children, irrespective of ethnicity, culture or religion, home language, family background, learning difficulties or disabilities, gender or ability should have the opportunity to experience a challenging and enjoyable programme of learning and development .”(EYFS Statutory Guidance 2008)
Contrary to the government statutory guidelines, boys were still underachieving which sparked a new government research document to be produced, ‘Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting boy’s achievements’. This document supports the ideas that the problem lies at the feet of the professionals in proving the incorrect type of learning opportunities, “Are we planning experiences for boys that build on their interests and value their strengths as active learners and problem solvers or are we simply expecting them to be compliant, passive recipients of new skills and knowledge” (DCSF 2007). This was also recognised by Ofsted in 2007 when it was published: “Ofsted has specifically highlighted the need to make early years provision more boy friendly and help them to achieve more rapidly by providing activities for learning that engages them.” (Ofsted 2007).
The importance of the outdoors is therefore even more crucial when looking at the future of our boy’s attainment. Are boys developing a negative image of themselves as learners because professionals are providing the wrong learning opportunities?
So what does the outdoor environment give to boys that the inside environment does not? Helen Bilton has researched boys and the outdoors significantly and she writes that, “The outdoor environment could play a central role in helping boys. They are more interested in movement, exploration and action and this type of activity occurs for the most part in the outdoor area”. (Bilton 2002: 73) Smith et al.(2003) outlines the psychological perspective on gender which concurs with Bilton’s views on boys that even though boys and girls share interests there is evidence of clear play preferences by 3 or 4 years old. “Boys are more likely to enjoy play that is more active and need more space”. (Smith et al 2003). As the outdoors is a perfect place for facilitating activities which encourage movement and multi sensory experiences it tends to support boys natural learning styles. Resources and equipment that encourage children to solve problems and overcome challenges through exploration seems to be the ideal method for engaging the interests of boys. To support these views Sarah Gharremani writes’ “Research shows the outdoors may be able to provide for boys the activities and experiences that will help them achieve”. (Nursery World 2009)
Although the research mostly supports the benefits of the outdoors for boys some research has shown that it can have a negative effect on the learning environment. (McNaughton 2000) argues that, “During free play boys regularly use physical power to control spaces. Although this seems to be part of learning what it means to be a boy, this kind of behaviour can have negative consequences for girls”. The difficulty lies in being able to control the behaviour of boys in the outdoor environment and the danger lies in the possibility of adults and children seeing the outdoor environment as being ‘boys’ territory. Not only this, but there also lies the danger of reinforcing stereotypes to very young children and maybe conveying the message that active and explorative play is for boys and not for the equally curious and creative girls.
What is the role of the practitioner outdoors?
“We believe that every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development and that these experiences make a unique contribution to young children lives.” (DfES 2005: 11)
Even though the government policy documents are constantly informing us that children are required to have access to an outdoor learning environment, it is not always as simple as just providing an outdoor area. Issues that have surfaced have been the confusion surrounding the role of the practitioner in the outside environment. Although the ‘Effective Provision of Preschool Education’ (EPPE) research identifies the outdoors as being a great place for practitioners to engage with children in ‘sustain shared thinking’. “Sustained thinking occurs when two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend the understanding.” (Siraj-Blatchford et al 2004). The counter argument is that the outdoor environment is supposed to provide children with the opportunity for private space and opportunity to just ‘be’ a child. Questions are raised about how practitioners are trained for the role of the adult in the outdoor environment and whether or not we are providing children with the correct sort of learning opportunities or do we comprise children’s learning with our actions?
Working in both indoor and outdoor environments practitioners are required to provide a balance between child initiated activities and adult directed roles but not all practitioners find it easy to convert to a complete ‘child initiated’ play when looking at the outdoors.”Adult interaction is the hardest aspect to teach in training, knowing when to be near, to offer space, or a challenge, seems to come from within a sensitive, knowledgeable adult” (Warden 2007:18) When teachers are used to working with a pre-determined curriculum, is it a simple task to ask teachers to allow the children to lead their own learning or does this type of teaching require training and more understanding? A paper written by Maynard also questions this idea when she writes “any assumption that all teachers will find it easy to ‘let go’ and allow children to take the lead in their learning is both simplistic and overly optimistic” (Maynard 2007:207) The findings of the foundation stage pilot phase verified these doubts to be correct as they found that practitioners were unclear as to what exactly is meant by the term ‘active learning’, ‘outdoor classroom’ and even ‘play’.
The role of the practitioner is so important to the success of the outdoor environment that if managed incorrectly it could have adverse effects on the setting. This view is also demonstrated when Jan White writes “Practitioner attitudes, understanding and commitment, comfort, confidence and competence are all crucial aspects of successful outdoor provision. Practitioners having a good understanding of their role outside contributes significantly to sharing children’s pleasure in being outside.” (Jan White 2008: 9)
It is essential therefore that adults understand the benefits and potential the outdoors has on the learning and development of young people. If practitioners do not have the understanding and enthusiasm then this will have a negative effect on the leaning potentials, it is only when outdoor play is seen as a crucial part of early years education that it will be well provided for and in turn be successful. As McMillan(1930) argues, the success of children’s learning rests with the teacher. These findings were supported by theorist Bruner (1987 cited in Bilton 2008) as he talks about the interactionist approach which places a responsibility on adults to make sure children have a partnership role. “The staff role therefore involves bringing the children, environment and curriculum together.” (Bruner 1987) The presence of the adult is therefore essential as Vygotskys work on ‘the zone of proximal development’ also supports “a child on the edge of learning a new concept can benefit from interaction with a teacher”.
“We as adults can therefore effect children’s development to its detriment or to good effect” (Bilton 2010)
Importance of Risk taking
Another issue surrounding the debate about the outdoor environment which gets discussed a lot is the concern of the potential risks of this type of environment. Is it important for practitioners to give children the opportunity to take risks and make their own mistakes and learn from them or is it our job to protect them from anything that may be seen as a potential risk? (Gill cited in Bilton 2007:10) argues that “childhood is becoming undermined by risk aversion” and this echo’s a sentiment expressed by (Cunningham 2006) that adults are interfering too much with childhood. We need to give our children the opportunity to experience risk and self regulate their own safely or how else are they going to learn these skills? The royal society for the prevention of accidents (RoSPA) argues that children need challenges, “It is essential to their healthy growth and development. Children need to learn about risk, about their own capabilities and to develop the mechanism for judging it in controlled settings.” (Cook and Heseltine 1999:4)
The outdoor environment seems to be the perfect place to allow children the freedom to partake in potential ‘risk taking’ play. Although literature around this subject is rarely seen as taking a positive attitude towards it, there have been research projects which have shown the “potential links between children’s physical risk taking behaviour, the later development of risk management strategies and positive dispositions to learning” have been suggested (Smith 1998 Stephenson 2003). Practitioners expect children to make all of the right choices in so many different areas of life e.g. when to be kind, when to share etc. So why do we feel the need to take away the opportunity to make decisions about danger and risk? Can four year olds make such informed decisions about their lives? Can over protection from risk inhibit development?
It is argued that taking risks can have a positive effect on the learning development of young children. Many current researchers (Ball 2002: Gill 2007: Hughes 2001) argue for the developmental benefits of risk in the outdoors through play. Ball notes that because the future benefits of play and risk in play cannot be measured with our theoretical models, they are not appropriately considered. But is it not risk that provides children with the opportunity to learn the important skills needed in adulthood?
If we are to use the outdoor environment as a ‘classroom’ to enrich the learning experience, surely we cannot put barriers on experiences which will help children to grow and develop. By providing access to the outdoor environment you can in hand provide children with the opportunity to take risks, but with the rising ‘culture of fear’, it proves a more difficult task than once thought. Numerous writers have claimed that there needs to be more recognition placed on the positive outcomes of risky activities such as the development of self-esteem and self- confidence. (Lindon 1999: Stephenson 2003)
One element of outdoor education which emphasises its ability to fulfill these elements of child development is ‘the forest school approach’, an approach which started originally in Scandinavia but shows more evidence of the benefits of the outdoors and risk taking. What makes ‘forest school’ unique is its emphasis on learning outside in the ever changing environment and the ability to let children take risks and to access risks for themselves. Not only does this environment provide children with opportunity to develop skills in risk evaluation but also build up self-esteem and confidence when encountering situations and tasks which are new and unexplored. Although Dewey (1938,78) states that, “children need teachers to decide what is safe and also developmentally safe for them”, this is contradicted by a lot of research showing that if we give children the independence of their own learning and development they will become creative and confident learners in the future. Many theorists and researchers have agreed with this point and even though there maybe some negatives of providing children with risks, the benefits seem to outweigh the negatives. “It is only when the environment that we set up for children enables them to be adventurous and show physical and social courage that children can begin to understand themselves and others,” (Ouvry 2005)
Opinions and debates on the outdoor environment are vast and plenty with researchers and theorists studying every aspect of how and why the outdoor environment is a positive element of children’s early education. Having reviewed various sources of information it can be concluded that the outdoors has a significant impact on boys and their learning development. By understanding more about the ways that boys learn we are able to see that the elements of the outdoor environment can support the development of boys in order for them to achieve well and improve their attainment.
It would appear that a grey area in need of attention is the role of the adult in an outdoor environment. The evidence and research favors the suggestion that practitioners are there for the children as a scaffold to their learning rather than getting heavily involved in any learning activities. Although this seems to be something which a lot of practitioners are unsure of, if settings are going to be able to provide an outdoor environment to its full potential, then a better understanding of the elements that work best are in need of being put in place. A better understanding on how to be a supportive adult in the outdoor environment needs to be clarified and then practitioners will be able to provide the best possible learning experiences for young children.
Risk taking is always something which will come under great scrutiny as children’s safely is always of up most importance. However, a better understanding of the benefits of allowing children to take risks and make their own choices needs to be addressed. Unfortunately we are at risk of protecting our children from meeting any real opportunities for risk or challenge which will in turn affect their emotional and physical development. The over whelming evidence is that risk taking contributes to the personal traits and abilities of children and by not allowing them the opportunities to do this we are ultimately stemming their development. “The biggest ‘risk’ in the environment of young children is when there is no risk, because this unavoidably leads to risk adverse, inexperienced and unconfident young children.” (Judith Horvath 2010: 23)
Throughout this review various aspects of children’s play has been discussed, but the one thing that seems to be echoed throughout the review is the importance of play and outdoor education. There seems to be something which the outdoor environment can provide children with that we cannot mirror in our indoor environment. Something that nature and space can give our children that we cannot replicate. Children seem to be instinctively drawn towards the outdoors. Could it be that they already have the knowledge of what this environment can provide? An environment which is a natural learning environment where children feel settled and capable. An environment where children are able to gain confidence in what they can do as well as feeling the benefits of being healthy and active. An environment which provides many opportunities to experience risk, exploration and adventure. An environment which provides a connection between the nurturing aspects of nature and human beings.
Children learn through their senses, so it is of no surprise that “nature can fully engage children in a way that is wonderful to behold.”(Warden 2007: 8)
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”. (George Bernard Shaw 1925)
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Early Years Educator (2009) Boys will be boys Volume 11 No 7 pp. 27- 30
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