The Importance of the Outdoor Environment in Early Childhood Education
“The beginning of something is always very important, especially when it’s young and needs to grow” Plato, philosopher and educator
Past generations have reminisced with nostalgia about their childhoods, of playing in the streets until dark, making cubbies in bushland and hanging upside down on metal monkey bars in the local park. Today streets are too clogged with cars and potential danger, the bushland is now housing, while the monkey bars have been taken out due to the possibility of injury and litigation.
The older generation worry about the youth of today as the availability to play outdoors is severely reduced and children are now spending more time inside on computers and iPads. The question arises whether this generation’s focus upon technology and parent’s anxiety about their children’s safety is to the children’s detriment.
Early childhood has always recognised the importance of the outdoor natural environment as an element of education which develops the whole child, from their physical skill development to social awareness, emotional good health and linguistic abilities. Theorists such as Froebel, Dewey and Rousseau emphasise the importance of the child becoming involved within the natural environment. (Elliott, 2008) It was Froebel who envisioned the word “Kindergarten” to describe early childhood education as a children’s garden with the child’s connection to nature being fundamental.
As the availability of space is being reduced for many children and the promotion of curriculum based learning from an earlier age, the importance of an outdoor program which is based upon a child-centric approach becomes more important. The deprivation of play opportunities have been stated by some experts to cause depression and hostility in children (Hirsh-Pasek and Michnick Golinkoff.(2004) The term “nature deficit disorder” has been used to describe some children’s discomfort both emotionally and physically in a natural, outdoor environment.
In early childhood education a new position of the outdoor teacher has developed in recent times as the industry is recognising the unique learning that occurs in the outdoors. It is up to each centre to explore how to best use their resources and physical environment to best promote each child’s potential.
The most obvious benefit of the outdoors is the development of a child’s physical abilities. Through movement children develop the abilities and skills such as to run, jump and skip but in order to refine these skills they need to develop good muscle tone, flexibility, co-ordination and sense of their own body position in space. Play provides the perfect opportunities for children to practise such skills and refine their abilities. Research has also indicated that physical movement assists in the emerging development of their executive function. Psychologists from the University of Colorado have found correlation between a child’s executive function i.e. planning, decision making, goal orientation and their long term happiness, success and social stability. (Wexler 2014)
A body which is active is healthy and is able to maintain a correct weight which promotes more activity and a healthier self-image. According to statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2012) 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese and being overweight increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Alarmingly the statistics for being overweight are continuing to rise.
In Early childhood children should be experiencing the joy of movement and the sensory pleasure of jumping in puddles, chasing butterflies and riding a bike fast around a comer.
“(Early Childhood) is a time when we give permission to not have to be perfect…
to push the boundaries and test limits.” (Walker 2005)
The outdoor environment, just by its nature provides an openness of play possibilities. It provides opportunities to interact with peers and to develop and strengthen friendships. It is these friendships which often become life long as children develop together shared experiences and memories, which bring joy and happiness to one’s life. It can aid children in the development of empathy, to see things from another’s viewpoint and to try new challenges when supported by a friend. Research has found a relationship between a child’s emotional intelligence and their school success (Hirsh-Pasek and Michnick Golinkoff, 2004). Some have stated that it is as high as 80% of your chance of being successful in life has to do with your emotional intelligence rather than your cognitive intelligence (Goleman, cited in Dent, 2008)
It is with friends that play expands and becomes more complex as it provides opportunities to develop those skills which enable us to become part of our social community. Children learn to communicate and be an active participant in conversations with both peers and adults. They explore syntax and the rhythm of language, experimenting with rhyme, jokes and word meaning. Outdoor play also provides opportunities to learn how to negotiate with peers, to articulate one’s ideas to others and to develop verbal strategies to support and argue them. Rogoff (2003) (cited in Arthur et la, 2012) adds that children’s play conversations are not for real and thus do not have penalties for mistakes as they explore and expand their skills.
“A child loves his play not because it’s easy but because it’s hard” Benjamin Spock, American paediatrician.
In a recent game show the question was asked “How do people relax?” and the overwhelming majority of responses was to connect with the outdoors. It is connecting with nature which can provide opportunities to take a breath, to relax and for a child to find a balance within themselves which is their optimum state of arousal in which to learn and grow.
(Early Childhood) ‘is a garden where children and adults must thrive in beautiful surroundings and be inspired by nature’s colours and scents” Elliott (2008)
The outdoors allows children to have a break, a break to regain control from a world in which they are not in control. Being in the outdoors provides children with opportunities to assimilate what they have learnt, work through fears and emotional stresses but importantly to have fun and be happy. Most parents when asked what they want for their children will respond with “I want them to be happy”
The outdoor space is an environment in which children should feel safe and develop a sense of security. There is no right or wrong way to play in the outdoors. The sandpit could be a place to make sandcastles, dig to china or to cook a birthday cake, it is a place to develop one’s creativity and inventiveness and to take a risk and see what happens next.
The outdoors is thus child centred and directed as children make decisions about the direction of their play, to work on a project individually or to develop a group game with its own rules and objectives or to find some quiet space just to chill out. According to Maggie Dent (2008) children should be allowed to experience exquisite moments of joy such as jumping in puddles, diving into piles of leaves or playing in mud. These are the experiences that children are meant to have so they can better cope with the adult world responsibility and stress when it does come.
“Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humour.” Stuart Brown, contemporary American Psychiatrist
Thomas Edison, the American inventor who invented such things as the light bulb, the motion picture camera and held over 1000 patents was quoted as saying –
“To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
He could be describing the outdoor space where children explore not only the natural world but their own ideas as they discover possibilities. The outdoors allows children to not only to learn but also to learn the skills they need in order to learn such as curiosity, creativity, a sense of industry, optimism, independence and confidence just to name a few. In our high tech modern world children have become used to having toys provided which have one purpose, make noises and react with a press or swipe of a finger.
An example is of a 4 year old presented with a piece of cardboard with bottle tops and knobs attached representing a cockpit panel. He looked at it, pressed the bottle tops repeatedly and became increasingly perplexed, he looked up and said – “It’s broken” and he walked away. He had lost the ability to use his imagination, to be transported within his own ideas and faced with an opportunity to be creative he walked away.
Children are natural learners and it is the responsibility of educators to provide the environment which allows children to learn and develop their skills.
Research has found that it is the gift of time to play which provides children with the most meaningful stimulation in order to develop their creativity and imagination. (Walker, 2005) Divergent thinking is the ability to think with flexibility and originality to problems and situations. It is this way of thinking which a supported outdoor program can promote in children to reach higher levels of self-development. Bruner (Wasserman 1992 cited in Crook, 2005) adds that children will develop a “habit” of creative exploration and thinking and in order to accomplish this, again the importance of time to play is revealed.
“In the 21st century, creative problem solvers, independent thinkers, and people with expert social acumen will inevitably surpass those who simply learned to be efficient at getting the right answers.” – Hirsh-Pasek and Michnick Golinkoff (2004)
Hilary Wilce (20 l 5) stresses that children need to develop traits they will carry throughout, not only their school lives but throughout their lives. This is supported by the foundations of The Early Years Learning Framework which emphasises the development of children’s dispositions and skills in an environment which is child centred, individualised and play based.
“Learning lies…inside children themselves” Wilce (2015)
In Sweden children do not attend formal school until 7 years of age and until then they play and can spend up to halfthe day in early childhood care outside with the emphasis on child directed play with minimal standardised testing and directed teaching. By the time they are 10 years Swedish children lead the literacy table in Europe, and in Finland children are amongst the highest ranking performers in international comparisons (again they do not begin formal schooling until 7 years)(Montreal Gazette). This is a result which is in contrast to the majority of western culture where the current view is the sooner children are “taught” the better and the priority of standardised testing and published results.
A major topic of concern worldwide in the last few years has been the sustainability and protection of the planet on which we live. The children of today will be making the decisions in the future and it is the development of a love and desire to protect our natural world when they are young that will build into a sense of responsiveness to this ongoing issue.
“The best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky.” – Margaret McMillan
When asked most parents, educators, administrators as well as politicians would acknowledge the importance of the early years of a child’s life.
However, how best to support children’s development is one which is not universally acknowledged and the importance of play in learning needs to be advocated by all early childhood educators.
We must become advocates for play, not only in the outdoors but in the classroom as well and to resist the formalisation and testing and allow children to explore, grow and the experience the joy and freedom of childhood.
The United Nations Convention on the Right of Childhood
Article 31 is –
‘Every child has the right to play’