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Outdoor learning its importance for childrens development

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When growing up I loved playing outside, in the local park or being taken to many country parks by my father. I class myself as being lucky to have grown up in a generation where playing outdoors was a regular occurrence, where boys and girls played together in mixed ability and mixed age groups. Having had two children myself I wanted to continue the great experiences that I had in the outdoors with my father. However I noticed a difference in the way that they and their friends accessed the outdoors. Both my children are boys but they still accessed the outdoors differently from each other and girls that they played with also had sufficiently different ideas about the outdoors. Having discovered that boys and girls all seemed to have different ideas about the outdoors I wanted to investigate this further. I particularly wanted to understand any differences in the way they accessed the outdoors as I remember being distinctly referred to as a ‘tom boy’.

Chapter 2 – Literature Review

There has been much research focused on the outdoors, outdoor play, and outdoor education including sustainability and recreation activities. Taylor and Morris (1996) suggest that

‘Outdoor learning is an important and integral part of a high-quality early childhood education curriculum’. (pp 153)

There are many skills encompassed within the term outdoor play or outdoor learning, therefore before starting there is the need to try and define the term outdoor play or outdoor learning. The Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL) (2009) suggests that the term outdoor learning is a broad expression that can encompass play, education, skills, sustainability and the natural environment and may be referred to as experiential learning for children which takes place within the outdoors. Additionally The Collins English Dictionary (2009) refers to outdoor as ‘the open air’ (pp 412), to play as ‘occupying oneself in a game or recreation’ (pp 442) and to learning as ‘gaining a skill or knowledge by practice’ (pp 337) therefore outdoor play could be defined as engaging oneself in a game or activity outside where you can gain new skills and knowledge. Consequently throughout this study the term outdoor learning will be used to refer to outdoor education, outdoor play and outdoor recreation activities.

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This study will encompass the role of outdoor learning including its importance for children’s development, the safety and risk involved in children’s outdoor learning and the anxiety that this causes for carers, gender issues relating to how boys and girls use the outdoor learning environment, and geographical, community and social perspectives focusing on the impact that they can have on a child’s involvement with outdoor learning. To begin with we will cover the role of outdoor learning.

The importance of outdoor learning and the beliefs that it contributes to children’s development and progress date back to Rousseau (1762) and Froebel (1826). These beliefs have been continued, explored and researched in depth with new emphasis being placed on Forest Schools and outdoor learning. Philosophies and theories about outdoor learning tend to focus on the natural environment and the effect that this can have on children’s development. (Frost 1992, Fjortoft, 2001and 2004, Bilton, 2004, Lester and Maudsley 2006, Forest Education Initiative 2007, Tovey 2007, and White 2008a)

Boyd (1963) writes of Rousseau and how he was one of the first people who advocated developmentally appropriate education. Rousseau (1762) also wrote of the importance of growing up in the countryside and how this would create a more natural and healthy environment than the city. Froebel (1826) advocates the need for children to be provided with places to play where they can be nurtured and developed through experiences with the natural environment. Stevinson (1923) and Macmillan (1927, 1930) also promote the need for children to be in the outdoor environment. MacMillan’s ‘The nursery school’ and ‘The nursery school garden’ articulates the need for children to have free movement and experiences within the natural world around them.

Much attention has also been given to the need for children to play and learn in the natural environment and the important role that outdoor learning plays in children’s growth, development and social skills. (Stevinson 1932, Fjortoft and Sageie 2000, Riley 2003, Bilton 1994, 2004, Callaway 2005, Moore and Wong 2007, Joyce 2007, Shackell et al. 2008, and Balls and Burnham 2008) Stevinson (1932), McMillan (1930) and more recently Frankel (2007) have stated that natural outdoor environments are good for the health and development of children and the improvement that playing outside has on children’s concentration, behaviour and speaking and listening. They have also suggested that we should provide suitable provocative environments where new provocations and opportunities are made possible.

Studies have also been made and have shown that children benefit in other physical ways from playing in the outdoors and the natural environment. Positive effects and implications on motor development such as balance and co-ordination which will help children master their own bodies’ abilities in relation to the natural physical environment have also been recognised (Fjortoft 2001; Lester and Maudsley 2006). Dowling (2006) believes that outdoor learning can support children’s development and is a natural way of learning in an environment which is full of sensory experiences. The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) (2004) and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) (2005 and 2008a) have also stated that outdoor learning can give depth to the curriculum and can enhance children’s physical, social and emotional development. Although much has been written that advocates the role of outdoor education it has been difficult to find a study that disputes the role of outdoor learning in the development and education of children.

Despite this evidence Edgington (2002) and Fjortoft (2004) believe that much of the developed world and on a micro-level; some practitioners have neglected the use of the outdoor environment. They suggest that this can be due to both weather related issues and concerns over the potential risks involved with playing and learning within the outdoors. Certainly, my own experiences in settings have shown that when the weather is bad the practitioners and the children stay inside, on only one occasion have I seen practitioners and children outside regardless of the weather. Additionally consideration needs to be placed on children’s safety when involved in outdoor learning.

Numerous people have suggested that today’s children do not have free access to the outdoors due to parent’s concerns over safety and risk. Perceived problems such as traffic and fear of crime or abduction have led to parent anxiety which can have a profound effect on children’s play and has led to many children being kept at home ‘safe from harm’ (Ball 2002, Portwood 2005, Palmer 2006, Tovey 2007, Carruthers 2007, DCSF 2008b, and White and Stoecklin 2008).

Nevertheless there is considerable discourse about the need for children to encounter risk. However we should also consider the difference between risk and hazard in terms of children’s safety and development. RoSPA (2010) identifies a hazard as something that has the potential to cause harm and risk as the likelihood that harm from a particular activity or hazard will actually be realised. By helping children to understand the risks involved in certain activities they can begin to make informed choices regarding their actions as Cook and Heseltine (1999) state

“Children need challenge so that they can learn about risk, their own capabilities and to develop the mechanism for judging it in controlled settings” (Cook and Heseltine, 1999, pp 4).

Joyce (2007) also states that encountering risk helps children to learn about responsibility. The DCSF (2007, 2008c, and 2008d) express the need for children to experience a balance between risks and fun. They suggest that not everything should be made safe and that children need to recognise and understand about risk as it is an essential part of growing up. Conversely Stine (1997) and Knight (2009) suggest that we should try to make things as safe as possible but still facilitate children’s risk taking. They acknowledge that by allowing children to take risks we will enable them to learn respect for the environment, keep themselves safe and develop competence. However Stephenson (2003), Carruthers (2007) and Sandester (2009) have suggested that too many safety issues about risks within children’s play are leading to too many rules and regulations which have made it difficult for practitioners to provide suitable activities, implicating that making a setting hazard free will make it challenge free. Despite this fact many other researchers have discussed the importance of rules, regulations and risk assessments. They agree that using risk assessments and involving children within this process will ensure children’ s safety, whilst still allowing practitioners to offer adventurous and risk taking activities. (Bilton 2002, 2004, Callaway 2005, White 2008a, and Knight 2009) Nevertheless Bache (2006) comments that risks are exaggerated and that all children no matter how well supervised will undertake some risk. Furthermore where a child lives may impact on their attitudes towards outdoor learning.

Within the literature reference is also made to geographical, community and social issues in relation to outdoor play or the lack of it. Hart (1979), Nabhan and Trimble (1994) and Garrick (2004) have all commented on and researched children’s outdoor play and their findings showed that geographical perspectives such as having access to wild areas or a simple garden played a part in the way children accessed the outdoors within their immediate and wider environment. They also highlighted the importance of having experiences with nature and the emotional experiences and intimacy children can develop from this such as a sense of place and belonging. Additionally Valentine and McKendrick (1997) suggest that although many cities and towns provide children with formal facilities such as playgrounds most children would prefer to play in ‘flexible’ environments such as open spaces and waste ground. However we should also consider the social factors in regards to children’s outdoor play.

In reference to social issues Tizard, et al. (1976) conducted a study that showed children from working class backgrounds opted to spend 75% of their time outside and that their co-operative play was more evident outside than inside. They also wrote of how working class children were more likely to play outside than middle class children. Millard and Whey (1997) also conducted studies on children in English housing estates and findings from their interviews and observations of children highlighted children’s enjoyment of physical active outdoor play and the opportunities that it gave them to socialise. However Carruthers (2007) writes of how many children no matter of their class; outside of school hours and without adult supervision; would naturally gravitate towards outdoor spaces and the natural environment where they would make their own games. Saracho and Spodek (1998) have also written about social classes and outdoor play and how children from working class backgrounds are more mature in their outdoor play and that their attention spans and concentration are much greater when playing outside than those of children from middle and upper class backgrounds. However these are only two perspectives and there is no other research evidence to either support or disclaim these findings. Besides which deliberation of children’s gender should also be taken into account in terms of outdoor learning.

Gender focused studies have highlighted play choices made by boys and girls when playing and learning outside and inside. Many have concluded that boys undertake more physical play outdoors, whilst girls are more sedate. Suggestions have also been made that boys sometimes tend to dominate the outdoor space and that there can be danger that outdoor spaces can come to be seen as boy’s territory. This has reflected gender stereotyping found in other studies about how boys and girls make choices within their play. (Tizard et al. 1976, Sanders and Harper 1976, Braggio et al. 1978, Hart 1978, Lott 1978, Henninger 1985, Bates 1986, Hutt et al. 1989, McNaughton 1992, Cullen 1993, Bilton 2004, Jarvis 2007, and Maynard and Waters 2007) There has been insufficient research to disclaim these findings and all found research has shown that there are gender differences in the way children play.

The literature suggests that great importance has been placed on the outdoor and natural environment and how it provides rich opportunities for the growth and development of children. There has also been much written about the adults role and the type of environment that practitioners should provide. This has not been covered within this literature review but we need to take note that these play a significant role in the way children will access the outdoor learning environment. There has been some reference to social and geographical issues and how these could aid or hinder children’s views of what the outdoors may provide for them. Significant research has also been placed on risks and safety and whether both parent’s issues and beliefs and practitioner’s beliefs have had an impact on the way that children within our society are accessing the outdoors. However gender issues have only touched upon the choices that children make when playing outdoors. This has led to me believing that there is a need to understand if there are differences in the way that girls and boys actually access the outdoors; do boys spend more time outside than girls? Are the children hindered by what is on offer?

This study is focused on gaining a deeper understanding on each of these issues in two early years’ settings.

Chapter 3 – Methodology

This chapter will identify the methods and techniques that have been used to gather the primary research for this study and the context in which the study was undertaken. Firstly the overall methods that have been used to collect data will be discussed and explained using a rationale. Next it will address any issues of validity and reliability during the research process. Finally the ethical issues which may arise will be identified and any measures that have been taken to address these will be discussed.

This research study will use both quantitative and qualitative methods to discover whether there are any differences in the ways that boys and girls access outdoor learning. The qualitative research will be obtained through semi-structured interviews with foundation stage practitioners and non-participant observations of children engaged in outdoor learning. Bell (1987) refers to qualitative data as

‘Understanding individuals’ perceptions of the world’. (Bell, pp 4)

Bell (1987) has identified one way in which qualitative research may be suited to this study. Through the use of interviews and non-participant observation this study will be concerned with listening to, observing and ‘understanding individuals’. Nixon (1981) suggests that studies involving children should be most appropriately researched using qualitative methods such as observations and interviews. As this study is child based using interviews and observations will provide rich and deep data which in turn will enable me to fully comprehend both practitioners’ perceptions and children’s integration with outdoor learning.

Despite this two quantitative methods (questionnaire and tally chart ) were also used within this study in order to gain numerical data in regards to the amount of time spent outdoor learning by both boys and girls and the types of activities that they undertook when outdoor learning.

As discussed this study uses four different methods of data collection; interviews, non-participant observations, questionnaires and tallies. Therefore my study encompasses different sources of evidence to compare and combine in order to reach a better understanding of my research question. Cohen (et al.) (2000) refer to this as triangulation. Roberts-Holmes (2005) suggests that

‘Triangulation gives the researcher the opportunity to check out their evidence from a range of sources’ (Roberts-Holmes, 2005, pp 40)

By using triangulation within this study I will be able to back up and enrich numerical data with information about the participants and their explanations and understandings. The data collection methods for this study will now be discussed in more detail outlining the advantages, disadvantages and rationale for each.

3.1 Observations

The first and second methods of data collection for this study were qualitative and quantitative observations. These observations were carried out in two different settings in Kettering; these were a Nursery setting and a Reception setting within a primary school. Nisbet and Entwistle (1974) suggest that when undertaking observations the observer needs to make them self invisible so that they do not affect the observed. To do this you need to have previously met the children and as closely as possible follow the same procedures for observation as the setting you are conducting your research in. Therefore the researcher made sure that she attended the settings on a number of occasions before conducting the research so that she was able to build relationships with the children beforehand and reduce the reactivity effect.

Greig et al. (2007) believe that observations are helpful in two ways;

‘observing a child in the natural environment will give the research a ‘real world’ edge ………direct experience facilitates the researchers’ ability to understand complex individuals and situations’ (Greig et al. 2007, pp 122)

As this research was designed to find out how individual children access outdoor learning, observation provides an ideal base to start from. They will also provide many insights into the first hand experiences of the children.

However as Scott and Morrison (2006) propose observations may be

‘Affected by the values and judgements brought to the observation by the observer’ (Scott and Morrison, 2006, pp 168)

The observer may have a specific agenda and see what they want to see, however the researcher in this case had conducted many previous observations and was able to observe the children naturally leaving the specific agenda of differences between boys and girls behind. The observations were carried out in a way that all children were treated as and observed as individuals. Despite the many disadvantages of observations especially the amount of time consumed writing the observations up they did enable the researcher to gain an insight into the children’s outdoor learning. The use of quantitative observations in the form of tally charts also enabled the researcher to gain numerical data which added more depth to the study.

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3.2 Semi-Structured Interviews

The second method of data collection for this study was semi-structured interviews. These were conducted with the practitioners at each setting where the research was carried out. The interviews aimed to find out the practitioners views of the way the children within their care accessed outdoor learning and if they had noted any specific differences between boys and girls. One of the important reasons for choosing semi-structured interviews as a research method was that they can provide a more personalised approach and as Bell (2005) suggests adaptability. By using a semi-structured approach to interviews the researcher was able to take on the role of facilitator by asking set questions but also allowing the development of any issues as they arise throughout the interview.

Roberts-Holmes (2005) recommends that when conducting an interview you must have a sound knowledge of the subject that you are researching so that you can remain focused and conduct an informed interview. Through completion of the literature review the researcher was able to identify key areas which would need clarifying during the interview process. Also by conducting a face to face interview any misunderstandings on the part of the interviewer or interviewee could be checked and clarified immediately.

However a disadvantage of the semi-structured interview according to Opie (2004) and Bell (2005) is ‘the danger of bias creeping in’ (pp 166). They suggest that this can occur in many ways either intentionally or unintentionally and by selecting questions which are phrased to support your argument. This was a difficult process to go through and the questions were written and re-written many times to ensure that they were not pre-conceived in anyway. Therefore this issue was addressed within the research process.

Additionally there is also the issue of the time involved in scribing the interviews, arranging times to suit all the individuals involved and gaining informed consent. These issues were addressed by firstly writing to the settings involved and asking for their consent to be interviewed. (See appendix) Furthermore arranging times and places which would suit the individuals helped in the process of the interview. In regards to time related issues although transcribing the interviews was time consuming, the researcher did however gain particular insight into the way these practitioners identified outdoor learning in terms of the children in their care.

3.3 Questionnaires

The third method of data collection for this study was questionnaires. These were sent to parents of children within the two settings used for this study. The questionnaires aimed to give numerical data to this study. This data was gained by asking closed questions stating amounts of time children spent outdoors and how they played when outdoors. However open questions were also used so that parents or carers could expand on their findings, therefore resulting in more detailed data and also possibly identifying other issues which may not have been addressed by the researcher. Furthermore the researcher used questionnaires as they seemed to be less time consuming especially within a time limited study such as this. Moreover it could be suggested that questionnaires are unbiased as the researcher is not able to influence the answers. However, Scott and Morrison (2006) suggest that there is the potential for questionnaires to have potential bias built into them through the researchers’ agenda. When drafting the questionnaire there were extreme difficulties in phrasing the questions so that they were not biased towards the researchers own agenda. However after many draft copies and conducting a pilot of the questionnaire the questions became less biased and more open towards the respondents.

Bell (2005) suggests that a further disadvantage of the questionnaire is the non-response. However in this instance the researcher sent out one hundred questionnaires and received seventy five back this in itself could be seen as a disadvantage in terms of the time needed to collate all of the data. Despite the disadvantages of this method of research, the high response to the questionnaires enabled the researcher to obtain numerical and qualitative data.

3.4 Selecting the Settings and sample children

The researcher chose to carry out the research in two early years settings which gave children free flow access to the outdoors. This allowed the researcher to observe children without any limitations in regards to the way children access the outdoor learning that is available to them.

The settings were a sure start nursery and a reception unit within a primary school, which gave the researcher access to a range of ages of children to observe, as there may also have been differences regarding age as to how the children accessed outdoor learning.

The settings were also chosen as they were known to the researcher which meant that professional relations had already been built with staff at the settings. However, although these relationships were already in place, this was not regular and there was no personal contact with the researcher which may have biased the study.

The practitioners involved in the interview process were also chosen from the two settings involved within the study. The practitioners involved had many years of experience within the early years and in regards to children’s development. This meant that they were able to give the researcher a deeper insight and understanding in to the way they had seen children access outdoor learning in their prospective settings.

The children involved in the research were randomly chosen from the children whom the researcher had been given permission to observe. However to ensure an even mix of children within the research two boys and two girls were chosen from each setting which meant that eight children were involved overall. After the eight children were chosen their parents/carers were informed again and they were also made aware of their right to withdraw their child at anytime.

3.5 Validity and Reliability

Cohen et al. (2007) define validity as an

‘Important key to effective research for if a piece of research is invalid then it is worthless’ (pp 133)

They suggest that validity can be addressed through the depth and scope of the data attained and in the extent to which triangulation has been used. Therefore the issue of validity has been addressed through the use of many different techniques to research the study. This will give the researcher greater confidence in their findings especially if they all result in the same conclusion.

Additionally in terms of qualitative data consideration needs to be given in regards of respondents answers to questionnaires as their opinions and perspectives will contribute a degree of bias within the study. However Agar (1986) argues that the in-depth responses and involvement of respondents in the research will secure a sufficient level off reliability and validity. On the other hand Cohen et al. (2007) argue that this may be insufficient and therefore the data collected must be representative in terms of the question to be answered in order to have validity. This issue of validity has been addressed in terms of the types of questions asked in both the questionnaires and semi-structured interviews.

As this study involves both qualitative and quantitative data and Cohen et al. (2007) suggest that in terms of reliability these are both different, the researcher will strive to address issues in both contexts. In regards to quantitative data both Bell (2005) and Cohen et al. (2007) suggest that the type of data collection used needs to be able to be reproduced and present similar findings in order for it to be reliable. The questionnaires used in this study are easily reproduced and may give similar findings, however there may also be the case that the results may not be entirely similar as they represent individuals’ opinions which will differ on every occasion that the questionnaires are reproduced.

Brock-Utne (1996) promotes the use of qualitative research and recognises the holistic approach that it gives to research studies and suggests that the reliability in this case can be seen as dependability. Moreover Cohen et al. (2005) suggest that observations if carried out especially if they can be repeated and are given the same interpretations can also be reliable. Therefore the methods of observations and interviews can be both reliable and dependable; however again there is always the possibility that different outcomes may be gathered depending on the times, settings and individuals involved in the observations.

The research within this study can be deemed both valid and reliable due to the triangulation methods used and that each method of research used can be easily replicated and completed again and again with the majority showing similar findings. Additionally all of the research methods used are directly related to the question identified and as Burton et al. (2008) promote the validity and reliability of any research carried out

‘Will be largely determined by the extent to which the findings are directly related to the issues or problems identified at the outset………..the selection of appropriate methods and how systematically the have been employed’ (pp 168)

Also the disadvantages and advantages of each method of data collection used in the study have been carefully considered before being used within the context of this study.

3.6 Ethical Issues

Any researcher should consider ethical issues when conducting primary research with people as Burton et al. (2008) advise all researchers have one shared responsibility and that is a ‘duty of care’ to all individuals involved in the research process. BERA (2004) is an association which sets out specific guidelines for researchers who are undertaking educational research they to propose that researchers need to ensure that no harm comes to the participants. BERA (2004) also establishes that the researcher should ensure that all participants within the research are fully aware of their rights and roles. Bell (2005) agrees with this and also suggests that researchers need to gain informed consent from all participants involved within the study. This issue was addressed by communicating with all participants their rights and confidentiality before the research was undertaken. Letters were sent to each setting included within the study which clearly outlined the study and asked for consent to carry out interviews and observations (Appendix ), telephone calls were also conducting in regards to arranging times. Another ethical issue outlined by BERA (2004) is that

‘In the case of participants whose age…….may limit the extent to which they can be expected to understand or agree voluntarily to undertake their role……In such circumstances researchers must also seek the collaboration and approval of those who act in guardianship’ (pp 7)

This issue was addressed by the researcher sending out letters to all parents/carers or guardians of the children within each setting asking for their consent for their child to be observed. The letters outlined the study, confidentiality and anonymity, and the right to say no or to withdraw from the study at anytime. Parents/ carers or guardians were also informed again if their child was chosen for the research and again were informed of their right to withdraw their child at any time. (Appendix )

BERA (2004) and Bell (2005) also recognise the importance of making sure that any participants involved in the study are not put under any stress, discomfort or intrusion during the research process. This issue was addressed by the researcher visiting both settings on a number of occasions so as to reduce intrusion and for the children to become familiar with another adult in their setting.

Consideration also needs to be given to the questionnaires used and the ethical issues surrounding this. The researcher made contact with the participants of the questionnaire through covering letters. These letters fully informed the participants of the outline of the study and how the data collected from the questionnaires would be used; participants also had the right not to reply and to withdraw their information at any time throughout the process of the study.

In conclusion due to the time limitations and small scale of this study there are bound to be limitations of the research process, some of which were discussed previously. However much deliberation and careful consideration was given to the reliability and suitability of the research methods used, which provided both q

 



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