The purpose of this study was to investigate if the outdoors was used in early childhood care and education (ECCE) centres to enhance learning opportunities. Children value outdoor play (Hart, 1979; Clarke and Moss, 2001; 2005, Kernan, 2006; Wait, 2007; Start Strong, 2010), and as key stakeholders in early education their voice is significant in planning outdoor play spaces. In spite of the growing interest in the outdoors, evidence from a joint inspection report indicated that access to outdoor are still limited in some centres (HSE/DES Joint Inspectorate Report, October 2012). This study attempts, in a small way, to address the need to raise awareness of the value of the outdoors in early childhood education by examining the use of outdoors in ECCE centres.
A questionnaire was circulated to all ECCE centres in a county in the south east of Ireland. The sample included a mix of urban rural, community and private centres. At the time of the study there were ninety eight centres in the chosen county. It was designed to elicit how practitioners in ECCE centres use their outdoor space and to extract information in relation to the design and construction of that space. Included in the questionnaire were two five point Likert scales, designed to measure participant’s (ECCE practitioner’s) awareness of the use of the outdoor space and open ended questions were included. Data analysis was conducted by means of the statistics programme SPSS.
Throughout the process of this study, the ethical guidelines of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra were followed. An application for ethical approval was submitted to St Patricks College research ethics committee. Although there was little in the way of sensitive material gathered in the study, confidentiality was guaranteed and respondents were asked not to put their names on the questionnaires, in this way anonymity was protected.
Questionnaires were circulated to ninety eight ECCE centres, eighty one were returned giving an eighty two percent return rate.
An initial key finding was that in three of the centres surveyed, there was an absence of any outdoor play space at all, as part of their premises. However, the large majority 96% had an outdoor play space.
The Likert scales measured two critical factors which together indicated how outdoors was being used to enhance learning opportunities. The total scores for the Likert questions were calculated and a new variable for each was created for further examination. The new variables were created to signify a broad overall use of the outdoor space (LIK1) and the perception of the role of the practitioner in outdoor play and learning (LIK2). The mean of both scales was then calculated. In the case of LIK1findings indicated that the centres used their outdoor space well but not to the maximum. In the case of LIK2 findings indicated a high level of awareness of the role of the practitioner in outdoor play and learning.
The relationship between the use of the outdoor space and learning, was the central focus of this study. The Likert scales helped to further examine this by means of a correlation analysis which was conducted between the two variables of ‘LIK 1’ and ‘LIK 2’.
Table 1 below details the correlation analysis and shows a positive correlation score of 0.259.
LIK 1 Sig. (2-tailed)
LIK 2 Sig. (2-tailed)
*Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
Analysis indicated a weak but positive correlation between the use of the outdoors play space and the role of the practitioners in outdoor play and learning. This indicated that as understanding of the role of practitioner in outdoor play and learning increases, so too does the use of the outdoor play space. The analysis indicates that the correlation is statistically significant (i.e. p< 0.05) meaning that the pattern observed is less likely to be due to chance. This indicated that the outdoor play spaces in this study group are used to support learning as measured by these two scales.
Of those centres who reported that they consulted with children on the design of the outdoor play space, eighty percent had different physical levels in their outdoor play space. In the case of centres that did not consult with children, only forty one percent had different levels. In other words most of the outdoor play spaces in centres who did not consult with children, were flat.
There was also a relationship between consulting with children and whether the outdoor space has grass, shrubs and trees and if there was a set time for outdoor play. This analysis indicates that the outdoor play space of the centres who had consulted with children, was more varied. According to Garrick (2009), creating successful outdoor play environments can benefit significantly by involving children in the process. Furthermore, the finding that this group were less likely to have a set time for outdoor play could also suggest that the curriculum was more flexible and child-led.
This study found that ECCE practitioners were alert to the learning opportunities provided by the outdoor play spaces and had a positive attitude to the outdoors generally. It indicated that practitioners have an understanding of their role in supporting learning through playing outdoors. It also showed that they had an awareness of the versatility of outdoor environments in children’s learning. Wood (2013) argues that “the role of the practitioner is to see the potential for playful learning” (p.75). Evidence from this study showed that practitioners articulated their role in identifying this potential for playful learning outside.
Notwithstanding the limitations of the study, it indicates that some focus on design of outdoor play spaces in ECCE centres may be warranted. In addition giving children agency and voice in the design of outdoor play spaces may have value.
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Gretta has been involved in early childhood care and education for almost forty years. She has worked in a variety of settings including, child and family centres, community childcare centres, schools and centres for children with additional needs. She has been Manager of Kilkenny County Childcare Committee since 2002. She has an MA in Therapeutic Child Care and an M. Ed. in Early Childhood Education. Gretta has had a long held interest in outdoor education and the value of nature connection for young children and is a founder member of the Irish Forest School Association.