“Using the real world is the way learning has happened for 99.9% of human existence. Only in the last hundred years have we put it into a little box called a classroom”. Nixon, 1997:34
As Tim Gill explains, initiatives embracing Forest Schools and outdoor kindergartens have increased considerably over the last few years (Gill, 2009).
This enquiry will explore the pedagogical beliefs behind outdoor programs and why they have emerged in Melbourne, Australia, looking at outdoor play and its “importance as a pedagogical space for children’s play, learning and development” (Moser & Martinsen, 2010).
My inquiry will be in the form of a literature review, exploring the history of outdoor education in relation to Kindergarten programs, and the current emergence of specific outdoor programs around Melbourne, Australia.
First I shall look at the connection between Kindergartens and learning outdoors, examining Froebel – the founder of Kindergartens – the subsequent movement indoors, and the recent re-emergence of outdoor programs. The second section will look briefly at the history of Kindergartens in Australia. Third will follow an exploration of the outdoor learning movement, specifically within Kindergarten programs in Melbourne Australia, with some reference to the National Framework, exploring the concerns that have been raised in regards to educators implementing outdoor programs.
Methodology and Terminology
The methodology I will employ for this inquiry is that of a literature review, encompassing books, journal articles and web-based material as appropriate.
Before exploring the literature it is necessary to define and explain the terminology. Outdoor programs are called many things, depending on the underlying pedagogy of the organisation and the location of the program. As Elliott and Chancellor explained, fundamental features of these programs are that “children spend long and regular periods of time in unstructured play” in natural environments, “ranging from weekly visits over a preschool term to an everyday all year round occurrence” (Elliott & Chancellor, 2012). Natural environments are defined as places free of defined structures, which dictate how the place is used (Melhuus, 2012).
In Australia, preschool generally caters to children 3-5 years old, attending during school terms, within school hours 9 am to 3 pm. Children attend on a half-day or full-days basis depending upon centre timetables. Preschools may also be known as Kindergartens, pre-prep, or pre-primary (Hayes & Press, 2000), and children usually attend for a year (or two), before their first year of school.
History of Outdoor programs
Incorporating outdoor learning into Kindergarten programs has been a leading idea since Froebel opened the first Kindergarten in 1837. At the age of 23, Friedrich Froebel started teaching after trying out various career paths including forestry, surveying and architecture. In a letter to his brother he described his first teaching experience, writing “… it seemed as if I had found something I had never known, but always longed for, always missed, as if my life had at last discovered its native element” (Froebel 1889: 58 cited in Strauch-Nelson, 2012).
The notion of ‘unity’ was the driving force of Froebel’s philosophy and educational practice (Chung & Walsh, 2000). His belief in the unity of mankind and nature, and of the inanimate world and living things, led to his conviction that a balanced relationship between home, school and society was of crucial importance. He believed in parents as children’s first educators, but also that children benefited socially through exposure to the wider community and nature (Joyce, 2012a). The kindergarten was to be an environment in which children could reach their full creative potential. Froebel did not believe that nature was in itself enough; he strongly believed “the guiding hand of a trained, sympathetic and loving educator was essential to enable the child to make links and connections in their learning”(Joyce, 2012a, 2012b).
The concept of child-centeredness has also been linked back to Froebel. In Froebel’s The Education of Man, the term first appeared (Die Menschenerziehung 1889: 97, 277 cited inChung & Walsh, 2000), in describing childhood characteristics of the 3-to-5 year-old:
Now, it is true, for the period of childhood this longing [for unity] is gratified in the complete enjoyment of living play. By this, in the period of childhood, [the child] is placed in the centre of all things, and all things are seen only in relation to himself, to his life.
His name for his new program was Kindergarten: Kinder for ‘Human’, and garden for ‘nature’, translating as both garden of children and garden for children, as Polito (1995) posits, Froebel more than any other educational philosopher, saw “how nature’s domain invited the child to uncover its secrets.”
Froebel’s belief that children should be learning outdoors through contact with nature is strongly evident in many later programs. Montessori philosophy, started in Rome (c 1907), which included the concept of inside/outside rooms, asserted “there must be provision for the child to have contact with nature; to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature” (Lillard, 2005). Mary Montessori also followed Froebel’s emphasis on the adult working with the child. She stated “being outside is not enough in itself for young children. Practitioners need to be trained for an outdoor environment, which requires a different approach altogether, with different teaching and learning strategies” (Joyce, 2012b).“
In 1950, Forest Kindergartens started in Denmark when Ella Flautau began applying Froebel’s key messages with her own and neighbourhood children, a practice which quickly spread. Gosta Fronhm working at Friluftsframjandet (FF) whose main goal was “that an outdoor lifestyle positively affects public health and quality of life”, believed that the organisation had something to offer younger children, so he created ‘Skogsmulle’ for the “I ur Och Skur” – rain-or-shine schools in 1957, with a simple philosophy: “if you can help children to love nature, they will take care of nature, because you cherish things you love” (Linde, 2010).
Over time in western society there has been a move away from Froebelian Theory, with the introduction of new science-based understandings of child development (both medical and psychological knowledge), with the focus on “Child Study” (Brehony, 2009; Kernan, 2007). Extending on Froebel, Dewey introduced the view of the learner as the starting point and the importance of the sociological aspects of education (Dewey, 1897 cited in Aylor, 2007, p. 1). There were also changing beliefs about childhood itself (Nawrotzki, 2006).
“Sadly, the ability to experience the world…as a source of wonder tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings, children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models, rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment” (Wilson, 1997:8 cited in Wirth & Rosenow, 2012).
The last century has profoundly altered the complexion of children’s play, curtailing opportunities for outdoor play, most obviously within the last generation.
It is well documented that opportunity for play outdoors, especially in nature, is becoming a thing of the past for young children in Western countries (Clements, 2004; Planet Ark, 2011; Prezza, Alparone, Cristallo, & Luigi, 2005; Waller, Sandseter, Wyver, Arlemalm-Hagser, & Maynard, 2010). Concerns have been raised in recent years about the disconnection of children from the natural world outdoors (Louv, 2009). Such concerns have been linked to the increase in ‘stranger dangers’ (e.g. Valentine & McKendrick, 1997); the move towards more home-centred leisure activities based around television, video games, computers; (Buckingham, 2000; Kernan, 2007), as well as the fact children no longer need to go outside to explore – They can wander the virtual world via i-devices, right from the palm of their hand. The detrimental effects of these trends are now reflected in documented, rising obesity rates. The World Health Organization (WHO) clearly states that “Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”(2012). Preparing our kids for the future has become a structured, indoor pursuit, to the determent of our children and our environment.
Jon Cree, who has been teaching children outdoors in the U.K. for almost 30 years, believes support for outdoor learning has grown due to concerns about diminishing child health and lack of outdoor time, fuelled by dissatisfaction with the “top-down education system increasingly geared to standardized tests and focused on outcomes rather than the learning process” (cited in Gordon, 2013).
Outdoor learning programs, many inspired by the European Forest schools, have been spreading across the world (e.g. UK, NZ, Japan and Australia), in response to a growing body of research literature identifying “the critical significance of play in nature for children’s health, wellbeing and development” (Kellert, 2005; Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001).
Of the various research exploring benefits for young children learning outdoors, the majority seem to come in line with the 6 Key Impacts of Forest Kindergarten on children which O’Brien and Murray (2009) identified in their evaluative report: confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills, knowledge and understanding.
Kahn and Kellert (2002) highlighted the value of learning outdoors to integrating children’s emotional, social and cognitive behaviours, stating “no other aspect of a child’s life offers this degree of consistent but varied chances for critical thinking and problem solving” (Kellert, 2005). Scandinavian research demonstrated that following play in nature, children’s concentration, motor ability, and social play are positively influenced (Fjørtoft, 2001). Learning outdoors in natural spaces encourages children’s active exploration and experimentation, promoting cognitive development, although Rickinson (2004) states while this may be true for cognitive development, rarely is learning addressed by the research.
Crain (2001) highlights three important ways nature can help children to develop: creativity (Grahn et al. 1997 cited inCrain, 2001), enhanced powers of observation, and a sense of peace. Crain explains the states of calm frequently derived from a new sense of belonging (1989 cited in Crain, 2001): “That is, the children felt calm because they experienced nature as a comforting, familial presence”. Within this sense of belonging, the outdoor space becomes a safe place, a place where children can begin to negotiate negative emotions, express positive emotions, and develop their confidence and courage while exploring the wonders of nature with peers.
The research overwhelmingly concludes that over time, with continued opportunities for learning outdoors, children’s enthusiasm, confidence, emotional wellbeing, learning capacity, communication and problem-solving skills are increased.
Yet Moser & Martinsen (2010), when looking at playgrounds within Norwegian preschools, identified that although physical space is important for outdoor play, the psychology of the space and opportunities for extended periods of time within the space cannot be overlooked. They identified a number of factors playgrounds should include to provide opportunities for the development of physical, social and emotional skills. These include: secret protected places; self-selected resources providing control over their own play; variation in space, materials, toys and equipment, and the addition of natural loose parts – thus indicating that suitably provisioned playground spaces may address many of the benefits attributed to nature play.
In their report on forest programs, Murray and O’Brien (2005) found outdoor learning presented some new perspectives and understanding of children as compared with a traditional program. Waters and Maynard (2010) explained this is an often overlooked benefit of learning outdoors – being outdoors, children of
ten initiate conversations with educators, providing opportunities for cognitive engagement and learning.
Without outdoor-specific training, however, Maynard and Waters (2007), suggest that educators simply transplant their indoor methods outdoors, failing to capitalise on the pedagogical opportunities presented by the environment, largely because they don’t see the outdoors as supporting their curriculum needs – their perceived main responsibility.
Play in green spaces has been a focus of mental health studies (Taylor et al., 2001) into childhood occurrences of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Louv, 2008; Taylor, Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and depression. Several of Kuo’s studies have found that “exposure to green space can reduce symptoms for children with ADHD”, exhibiting milder ADHD symptoms than those who played inside or environments without green space (Taylor et al., 2001). Further, Panksepp (2007) suggests the growth in ADHD is a result of poor opportunities for play.
The introduction of digital technologies in classrooms, however, has been found to engage children in problem-solving, including children recognised as disruptive or having low attention to tasks in other contexts (Laffey, Espinosa, Moore, & Lodree, 2003). It would seem that a variety of strategies both indoors and out may be more effective than the reliance on one method alone.
Research is identifying that for children to develop an affinity with the natural world, the early years is the most influential time (Davis, 2010). What they need is active engagement with the natural world, and to have their sense of ‘wonder’ nourished by an attentive adult who facilities and listens to the child’s own world and inner life.
Kellert (2005) states that cognitively understanding about environmental issues has little impact on behaviour. The “gap” between environmental behaviour and knowledge and pro-environmental behaviour is a research topic of it’s own (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002).
As educators, we must be mindful that time spent in nature does not in itself ensure children will care enough to develop “harmonious reciprocal relationships with nature and other human beings” (Gray & Martin, 2012).
Davis and Elliot (2009) state that the health of our global natural system is closely entwined with the long-term health and survival of human populations. Though many know the relationship actually runs the other way the global natural system could probably do well without humans, but reverse is not true. Knight (2009) explains that we need to foster habits of adventurous outdoor activities as early as possible for the futures of individual children and the health of society. Young children’s regular exposure and visits to natural places directly links with adult’s patterns of exposure and visits (Chawla, 2007).
Value of Risk taking
Outdoor play in nature provides children with the opportunity to undertake physical risk taking behaviour. Sandseter & Kennair (2011) explain that risk taking behaviour is a natural coping mechanism, and by taking a risk children are reducing their fears by approaching their phobias head on. Risky play involves a risk of physical injury due to challenging physical activities. Their report suggests that child anxiety problems can be reduced by opportunities of risk-taking play.
Whilst according to New, Mardell, & Robinson (2005), Scandinavian and Italian pre-school teachers have few concerns about children’s risk-taking, American and Australian educators are more likely to consider potential legal implications of injury. Consequently, Australian and American educators will tend to reduce the challenge of outdoor play, even though they are aware that such restrictions result in a compromise for children (Bundy et al. 2009).
This is a case where collective responsibility is lost, and individual educators feel the need to base pedagogical decisions on fear of individual blame (Waller et al., 2010). This contrasts heavily with Scandinavian countries, “where the benefits of mastering risks, experiencing various weather conditions and exploring the national landscape are widely acknowledged and encouraged” (E. Sandseter, 2009; E. B. H. Sandseter, 2009).
Overview of Australian Kinder
Australian Kindergarten’s history of theoretical influences seems to be lacking in comparison to other countries. Influential educational thinkers, such as Froebel and the kindergarten movement had made their way to Australia by the end of 1890.
Maybanke Anderson and fellow Kindergarten enthusiasts formed the Kindergarten Union in August 1895, their stated objectives were to;
- Set forth kindergarten principles
- Endeavour to introduce those principles into every school in New South Wales, and
- Open Free Kindergartens wherever possible
The kindergartens were a philanthropic response to conditions, and were regarded as a medium for educational and urban social reform (Brennan, 1998 cited in Hayes & Press, 2000). Of primary concern was socialisation of young children and education, offering morning programs for three hours, for children three years and over (Hayes & Press, 2000). By 1911, every State in Australia had similar organisations.
For employed mothers from working class society, a different movement emerged – ‘the Day Nursery’, whose hours of operation were longer, accepting children from infancy, with a focus on well-being and physical health, run by nurses not teachers (Hayes & Press, 2000).
Within the contemporary context, Early Childhood Education and Care has come to the forefront of political reform through policies established by COAG, The Council of Australian Governments, which is an organisation consisting of the federal government, the governments of the six states and two mainland territories and the Australian Local Government Association. One of the major areas of reform agreed under COAG is the National Quality Agenda (NQA) for Early Childhood Education and Care. The NQA embraces the National Quality Framework (NQF), the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) as well as the establishment of a new national body to oversee the new system (A Discussion Paper – prepared for the European union Australia Policy Dialogue, 11-15 April, 2011), Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA).
In July 2009, Australia’s first national framework (Ortlipp, Arthur, & Woodrow, 2011) for guiding curriculum and pedagogy in all early childhood settings, ‘Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia’ was published (EYLF) (A Discussion Paper – prepared for the European union Australia Policy Dialogue, 11-15 April, 2011).
In late 2008, COAG reached a National Partnership Agreement committing the Australian Government to providing ‘Universal Access’ – fifteen hours’ worth of quality childhood education per week during their last year before school, delivered by a four year university-trained early childhood teacher.
In Victoria during the period 2011-12, 102.7% of 4-year-old children are enrolled State Government funded and/or provided preschool services (including those assessed as eligible for a second funded year, thus exceeding the actual number of 4-year-old children) (Productivity, 2013). The introduction of Universal Access, especially in Victoria, has impacted significantly on how kindergartens maintain their existing three-year-old programs whilst offering the compulsory 15 hours for children 12 months prior to school (Elliott & Chancellor, 2012). Full-day and extended hours kindergarten is being ushered in across Australia, and there are huge challenges in finding enough indoor space. As indicated by these figures, Victorian kindergartens are already running at capacity.
A number of Kindergartens in Victoria have looked for inspiration overseas, such as the Forest Schools in Denmark – Karen Anderson was inspired by her trip to Denmark to start Balnarring’s Beach Kindergarten – and the Nature Kindergartens of Scotland – Doug Fargher Started Bush Kindergarten and has supported a number of other kindergartens following suit, including the Jacaranda Kindergarten, and Dunkeld Kindergarten. Others have been inspired, such as Somer’s Preschool, Kallista Kindergarten, and other early-childhood facilities such as Cornish College ELC, Woodleigh School ELC, Coburg Children’s Centre, the Farmhouse in Mansfield, as well as a Kindergarten in a Childcare centre in Cranbourne, using the beautiful location of Cranbourne Botanical Gardens bush land.
Each Kindergarten has incorporated the outdoor program within their own philosophies, pedagogy, and unique obstacles to overcome.
The introduction of the Universal access and through that the EYLF and the NQS, as well as the Children’s Services Regulations 2009 have brought to light early childhood environments and the environment.
‘Learning environments’ is one of the eight EYLF pedagogical practices promoting children’s learning (Australian Government Department of Education, 2009), and recognises the responsibility to educate for sustainability:
Outdoor play spaces ‘foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education’.
Outcome 2, Key component 4, reinforces these views:
Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment.
In the regulations;
The Children’s Services Regulations 2009 require that the outdoor space that is provided at a children’s service with a standard license includes features that enable each child who is cared for or educated by the children’s service to explore and experience the natural environment (regulation 97(1)(b)).
In the NQA:
3.2: The environment is inclusive, promotes competence, independent exploration and learning through play.
Challenges and Changes
Outdoor play is an important pedagogical space that needs to be critically positioned, to ensure that educators are focusing on the evidence not the message. Educators need to ensure that they are responding to current health, social, and ecological challenges, rather than a nostalgic reminiscence of their own childhood.
The literature review highlighted that outdoor education and play isn’t a new trend, but is a re-joining of Kindergarten’s Froebelian roots, viewed with a new lens in knowledge that has come to light since Froebel’s first Kindergarten, including the EYLF.
We must, however, take care not to cut away the roots out of which all growth comes as the destructive element of today is liable to do. We cannot tear the present from the past or from the future.
Froebel’s view of the role of the educator as: …a trained, sympathetic and loving educator … enabling the child to make links and connections in their learning, links in well with the EYLF. Froebel believed that through observation educators would learn to recognise that children are both unique individuals, as well as individuals that have some universal characteristics.
Froebel believed though observation we will learn what a child naturally finds interesting and joyful, and embrace a child’s natural instincts as valid learning tools. This is clearly supported in the EYLF’s Practice statement Responsiveness to children; Educators are “responsive to children’s ideas and play, which form an important basis for curriculum decision-making” (Australian Government Department of Education, 2009, p. 15). Once again this sits well with Froebel’s belief that children’s interests and abilities should be at the centre of instruction (Chung & Walsh, 2000) an approach that built up from the child’s current knowledge rather than cascading content down from upper grades.
Being outdoors and following children’s interest is not of sufficient pedagogical value, as stated earlier we must ensure that being outside itself does not become the major focus of our outdoor programs, nor indeed simply an extension of indoor teacher-led pedagogy.
Educators need to delicately balance following children’s interests, whilst providing new challenges to children, yet at the same time not exerting excess power – a balance which would exist within the confides of the kindergarten. When mitigating levels of risk during outdoor play, an educator’s decisions often epitomize their pedagogical beliefs, which depend on the context and the educators approach (Waller et al., 2010).
Beate Hansen Sandseter, Little, & Wyver (2012) identify that even though Australians and Norwegian teachers share similar views on the value of risky behaviour, the Norwegians are most likely to have a clear alignment between belief and practice. They argue that the introduction of approaches based on Gibsonian and Dynamic Systems theories into our teacher training would bring us in line with Norwegian teacher training, and the link between belief and practice would strengthen for Australian Teachers.
Teacher training is at the forefront of Forest Schools in the UK (Swarbrick, Eastwood, & Tutton, 2004) and there is strong belief outdoor programs need to have a trained forest school leader, which can bring its own difficulties as identified by Maynard (2007), with educators drawing on different educational paradigms. Swarbrick et al. (2004) suggest a way around this – that early years teacher training should include forest school modules in their course programmes. Such modules may provide a risk-assessment versus risk-avoidance perspective which realises the value of risky play.
Educators in kindergartens in Melbourne who are looking at introducing outdoor programs into the kinder, need to consider their centre and personal pedagogy in relation to the unique experience offered by the outdoor space, quite possibly adjusting inherent risk-adverse tendencies which would ultimately undermine the very benefits outdoor learning offers.
As stated in the Westgrath evaluation report (Elliott & Chancellor, 2012), DEECE regulations in relation to licensing and operational guidelines for attendance continue to present a difficult obstacle to introducing a nature program. As discussed, universal access, specifically the increase to 15 hours a week has made floor space a scarce commodity within Victorian Kindergartens. Many Kindergartens have followed Westgarth’s lead seeing the increase in hours as an opportunity to add scope and possibilities to the kindergarten program, rather than just adding hours to the program. However, as stated by Elliott & Chancellor (2012), existing barriers to nature programs due to licensing and ‘return to facility’ floor-space requirements need to be addressed, and the most effective starting point is advocacy and representation within DEECE.
Doug Fargher and Ben Goodes at Westgarth Kindergarten have been advocating and raising the profile for their bush kinder model with great success, being profiled by Inspire magazine, Melbourne’s Child and Play Australia, collaborating with Sue Elliot (RMIT) on research, and presenting at various teacher conferences. Karen Anderson from Balnarring Kindergarten has started a Bush Gathering , where those already involved in outdoor programs, or those on the outside looking in can meet and discuss their journey, both trials and tribulations. As more early childhood settings tackle the challenges of implementing an outdoor learning program, the various governing bodies will inevitably adjust licensing and regulations to accommodate this important redirection back to Frobel’s ‘garden for children’.
Forest School in Japan – The outdoor kindergartens in Melbourne have a central site, in this forest school they utilise a variety of learning places within their area.
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