Calm active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment

Abstract

This study reports on children’s observed responses to natural features introduced in the redevelopment of a childcare centre garden. Using an action research approach, the redevelopment was based on the preferences of the director, staff and 18 three- to four-year-olds, as expressed through interviews, conversations, photographs and drawings. Adults and children overwhelmingly preferred natural elements. The kindergarten teacher and assistant observed children’s responses to the implementation of features including a teepee, mulch, greenery, flowers, and loose organic materials. In follow-up interviews, they reported positive child responses including: richer imaginative play; increased physical activity; calmer, more focused play; and positive social interactions. These findings provide further evidence of the importance of providing children with naturalized outdoor play spaces.

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Correspondence to Anne-Marie Morrissey.

Appendix: Open-ended questions for staff

Appendix: Open-ended questions for staff

The teepee

  • Based on your observations of the children, what specific types of play do you think the teepee is fostering? For example, imaginative play, gross motor play, etc. In what ways is this happening?

  • Have you noticed any positive changes in the children’s play/learning/discovery since the teepee was built? Consider the ways children played in that area of the garden before the teepee was implemented, as compared to the ways they are playing there now.

  • Have you noticed any negative changes in the children’s play or learning since the teepee was built? Please explain.

  • Did the children respond to the implementation of the teepee in ways that you expected, or did their responses come as a surprise to you? Please explain.

  • How do you personally feel about the new teepee being in your teaching environment? This extends beyond your observations of the children playing with the teepee to consider your personal feelings about having a structure like this in your teaching environment. Consider how you felt about the structure being implemented before it was there in relation to how you feel about it now. Have your feelings changed or remained the same?

  • Do you think that, in the future, the teepee should be modified or changed in some way (apart from the inevitable repairs needed over time for wear-and-tear or damage caused by wind and rain).

The concrete path

  • What do you think of the garden now that the long part of the concrete path has been removed? In answering this question, consider your personal views and values about what constitutes a high quality garden for children.

  • Have you noticed any positive changes in the children’s play or play-based behaviours since the path was shortened and replaced with mulch? Please explain.

  • Have you noticed any negative changes in the children’s play or play-based behaviours since the path was shortened and replaced with mulch? Please explain.

  • Do you feel that the removal of the path benefits or hinders the children’s opportunities for play? Consider whether you would prefer the children to play on a concrete surface or mulch surface.

  • In which ways, if any, has the children’s play changed or developed since the removal of the concrete? In answering this question, consider the different categories or ‘types’ of play.

  • Have the children’s responses to the removal of the concrete path surprised or intrigued you in any way?

The blackboard

  • Considering your personal beliefs about what constitutes a rich outdoor learning environment for children, how do you feel about the new blackboard wall?

  • Based on your observations, how have the children as a group been interacting with the new blackboard?

  • Were you expecting the children to respond to the black board in this way, or did their responses surprise or intrigue you in some ways?

  • What do you think are some of the benefits of having this fixed art space/blackboard in the garden?

  • From time to time, blackboards and similar art-based boards have been used in the indoor learning environment. Do you feel the ways children interact in this learning experience is different or the same as they would indoors?

  • Do you feel there are any long-term benefits for the children of being provided the opportunity to make marks on the blackboard outside? Please explain, relating your response to the fact that the blackboard in outside, not inside.

The mirrors

  • How have the children responded to the new mirrors in the garden? Consider their behaviours in relation to the mirrors.

  • Do you think the mirrors hold any benefits for the children? In writing your answer, consider the fact that the mirrors in this case are outside not inside, i.e. do the mirrors complement the naturalistic, outdoor setting? Please explain.

  • Did the children respond to the mirrors in ways you thought they would, or did their responses surprise or intrigue you? Please explain.

  • Do you feel there are any negative aspects of the mirrors?

The sound makers

  • Based on your observations of the children at play, how have they responded to the new sound makers?

  • Now that the sound makers have been put in place, are you pleased that they were implemented or would you rather that the idea had been abandoned or that the structure had been implemented differently?

  • Based on your observations of the children playing with the sound makers, what do you feel are the benefits of this for the children in their learning or discovery.

  • Did the children respond to the sound makers in ways you had expected, or did their responses surprise or intrigue you?

Green plantings

  • How have the children responded to the new green plantings around the garden? Consider your observations of the children’s play and discovery.

  • Did the children respond to the plantings in ways you had expected they would, or did their responses surprise or intrigue you? Please explain.

  • In the future as the plantings grow and the garden becomes even greener, what do you feel will be some of the benefits or negatives of this for children.

  • In retrospect, do you feel the plantings could have been implemented differently to provide greater opportunities for the children?

Flowers

  • Based on your observations of the children at play, how did they respond to the new flower plantings?

  • Did the children respond to the new flower plantings in ways you had expected, or did their responses surprise or intrigue you? Please explain.

  • Based on your observations of the children at play, what do you feel are some of the benefits of the new flowers?

  • In retrospect, do you feel the flowers could have been implemented differently to provide greater opportunities for the children?

Natural loose parts

  • How have the children responded to the new loose parts (wood stumps, rocks, pebbles, thick tree branch off-cuts, gum nuts, pine cones) in terms of the types of play they have been engaging in, i.e. have the loose parts enhanced a specific type of play in any way?

  • Did the children’s responses to the natural loose parts surprise or intrigue you in any way? Please explain.

  • Based on your observations of the children at play, do you feel that the children benefited by being provided a range of natural loose parts? Please explain.

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Nedovic, S., Morrissey, AM. Calm active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environ Res 16, 281–295 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10984-013-9127-9

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Keywords

  • Early childhood
  • Natural and organic learning environments
  • Outdoor play spaces