The outdoor environment in Norwegian kindergartens as
pedagogical space for toddlers’ play, learning and development1
Marianne T. Martinsenb
aFaculty of Education, Vestfold University College, Tønsberg, Norway
bNorwegian Centre for Child Behavioral Development, Oslo and Telemark University
College, Porsgrunn, Norway
Corresponding contact: Thomas.Moser@hive.no
This study examines some characteristics of the outdoor environment in Norwegian
kindergartens. Understood as pedagogical space, outdoor conditions may enhance or
restrict the youngest children's possibilities for play, learning and development. In 117 of
133 kindergartens (response rate: 87 %) participating in a longitudinal study, the heads of
the institution and the pedagogical leaders in these institutions have completed
questionnaires. The questionnaires for head teachers and pedagogical leaders covered a
wide range of characteristics of the institutions, including outdoor space and organization
of time, everyday life and physical environment. The findings indicate that Norwegian
children spend a significant amount of time in Kindergarten outdoors, 70% and 31% in
summer and winter semester respectively. Norwegian children also have large outdoor
areas in their institutions; the average size is 2600 square meters (approx. 47 m2 pr. child).
Above 80% of the head teachers agree that the outdoor area has secret places where
children can play undisturbed. Norwegian children get some opportunities to
independently organize their play by making equipment and toys available without
assistance from staff.
Keywords: physical environment; outdoor; pedagogical space; play, learning and development
Today kindergartens represent a dominating arena of the life and upbringing of
preschool children in Norway. Approximately 89 % of all children one to five years
of age, and 97 % of children in the age group three to five (Statistics Norway, 2010),
are enrolled in Kindergartens.
In this contribution, our main research interest is the kindergarten's outdoor
space and its importance as a pedagogical space for children’s play, learning and
development. Our study is a part of and utilizes data from the Behaviour Outlook
Norwegian Developmental Study (BONDS) carried out by the Norwegian Centre for
Child Behavioral Development (Ogden et al. 2006) in cooperation with Vestfold
University College. BONDS is an ongoing longitudinal study that addresses the social
development of 1159 children from the age of 6 months onwards. The purpose of our
project is to examine what kind of cultural, social and physical environments
Norwegian kindergartens offer children aged one to five, in terms of their
development of social competences and, eventually, behavioural problems.
1 Moser, T. og Martinsen, M.T. (2010). The outdoor environment in Norwegian kindergartens as
pedagogical space for toddlers’ play, learning and development. European Early Childhood Education
Research Journal 18(4), 457–471.
Background - outdoor environment and pedagogical space
Until the end of the 1970s, the kindergarten’s physical space, rooms, equipment and furniture were
described and discussed in detail in governmental and other public documents. With the introduction of
the first national law on kindergartens in the mid-1970s, the importance given to (pedagogical) space
apparently changed (Jansen 2000): for example, more attention was given to the staff’s work
environment (Linge & Wille 1980). Although issues related to physical environment
continued to be discussed after the 1970s, the discussion tended to focus on nature
and the outdoor environment. In recent years, one can see a growing influence of the
Italian Reggio Emilia pedagogy in Norway and the Nordic countries, among others,
implying an increasing interest in space and architecture in early childhood education.
In the last decade, both Nordic and international research literature suggest an
increasing interest in topics such as physical environment, space or place regarding
children’s learning and development (Fjørtoft 2001; Kyttä 2003; Lindstrand 2005;
Nordin-Hultman 2004; Rasmussen 2006; Spencer & Blades 2006). Regardless of their
backgrounds or theoretical perspectives, these authors seem to agree that cultural and
natural environments play an essential role for children's physical and psycho-social
development, growth and learning. Yet, as Kampmann concludes (2006), there is still
a tremendous lack of research concerning the particular significance of space for
educational processes and the pedagogical activities of the staff. In this study we want
to provide very basic, but nevertheless lacking, knowledge about kindergarten’s
outdoor environment as pedagogical space.
Our understanding of the term space includes, on the one hand, the physical
environment constituting kindergartens as educational institutions: buildings,
architectural design of landscapes, different kind of rooms, fixed installations,
furniture and other removable artefacts, as well as elements that contribute to the
aesthetic design of the institutions and, not least, all objects and things constituting the
natural environment. Additionally to its anchoring in the physical dimension, space is
also constituted through the actions and meaning making of those involved in the
institutions and the organization of the educational activities in space and time (see
for example Nordin-Hultman, 2004). We therefore follow Kampmann’s (2006)
distinction between a psychosocial and physical understanding by recognizing
different features of “spaciousness”.
Nordin-Hultman (2004) argues that attention has to be increasingly directed
towards children’s opportunities for action in the educational environment, especially
when it comes to children with social and behavioral problems. Kindergartens, according to Nordin-
Hultman, may need more “action space” where children can find meaning in activities or play of their
We argue that kindergarten’s outdoor space is essential when it comes to children’s
social development and learning through outdoor play. Main quality indicators are, in our opinion, that
an outdoor area is attractive, challenging and stimulating in terms of opportunities to act, explore and
experience in cooperation with others, both children and adults. Several Nordic studies (e.g. Bjørklund
2005; Fjørtoft 2001; Grahn, Mårtensson, Lindblad, Nilsson, & Ekman 1997) revealed how very distinct
differences in outdoor environments may influence factors such as physical activity and play as well as
concentration and physical health. Grahn et al. (1997) found that children’s development and learning
in kindergarten was strengthened as a consequence of the amount of time spent playing outdoors. The
children got more and better opportunities to play without interruptions or distractions and many
educational activities such as painting, carpentry, etc., were conducted in outdoor environments.
Thus the time dedicated to outdoor play, the size, richness and suitability of the
physical environment, as well as the availability and expediency of installations,
equipment and stimulating play zones seem to be important space-related indicators for
The main purpose of this contribution is to take the first step towards identifying
significant physical conditions in kindergarten’s outdoor environment that may
enhance or restrict the youngest children's opportunities for play, learning and
development. The study is of an exploratory kind because there is not much research-
based knowledge available about Norwegian Kindergartens as pedagogical spaces.
Whether or not the effect of kindergartens on children’s social development can be
documented, and in which way, are questions that can be answered in the future,
when the overall data collection in BONDS is finished and kindergarten data, family
data and child development data has been analyzed in relation to each other. Once we
reach this point, we can consider specific importance (effect size) of the indoor and
outdoor environment space for the development of social competences through
Currently we are only able to present, on a descriptive level, some findings
about the outdoor environment in Norwegian kindergartens as pedagogical space for
children’s play, learning and development. We seek to answer the following three
1) How much time a day do Norwegian preschool children spend outdoors?
2) What size are outdoor areas in Norwegian kindergartens?
3) How similar or different are Norwegian kindergartens’ outdoor environments?
In 2009 the head teachers and pedagogical leaders of the 133 kindergartens
participating in BONDS participating in BONDS, located in five Norwegian
municipalities, completed questionnaires on pedagogically significant issues for their
institution as a whole (head teacher) and the departments at the institution (the
pedagogical leaders of these units). As a follow up survey in BONDS, the
questionnaires will also be sent out to the institutions in 2010 and in 2011. On the
basis of demographic considerations concerning size and population of the five
municipalities, the institutions included in this study can be considered as a
representative selection of the variety of Norwegian Kindergartens.
In addition to the questionnaires, each institution has been visited by a
researcher. In connection with these visits, the researcher interviewed the head teacher
and conducted an observation of the physical indoor and outdoor environment with
photographic documentation. Additionally the head teachers filled out a short
questionnaire about the use of computer and information technology in their
respective institutions. In this presentation, we confine ourselves mainly to data from
the questionnaire; only the data about the size of the institutions outdoor area has been
gained through the interviews.
The project is in accordance with the generally-accepted values of Norwegian law and
other research ethical regulations. The BONDS project as a whole is approved by the
Regional Committee for Medical Research, South Norway, and the Ombudsman for
Research (Norwegian Social Science Data Services). In the part of the study presented
here no observations or other collections of data concerning children are conducted.
The information for this publication is obtained through anonymous questionnaires
completed by head teachers and pedagogical leaders in kindergartens and no
individual or institutional source is identifiable in the data matrix in the data matrix.
Participants are explicitly informed that the information collected will be used for this
purpose, and not in other contexts.
The questionnaires were developed on the basis of a review of theoretical and
empirical contributions (see. e.g. Kampmann 2006; Lamer 2004; Nordin-Hultman,
2004; Pettersen 2002), with respect to available professional considerations and
expertise of preschool teachers and using experiences from a pilot questionnaire study
(Martinsen et al. 2009).
The questionnaire given to the heads of kindergartens consisted of 115
questions, 104 with closed response alternatives, six open questions and five
questions with the opportunity for complementary comments. These questions were
assigned six categories: structural characteristics of the institution, staff
characteristics, pedagogical content and methods used, cooperation with parents and
management and pedagogical leadership.
The questionnaire given to the pedagogical leaders of the departments (units)
in the kindergartens consisted of 104 questions, 97 with closed response alternatives,
four open questions and three questions with the opportunity for complementary
comments. These questions were assigned seven categories: structural characteristics
of the department, organization of children’s everyday life, lunchtime, social relations
in the department, collective competency and behavioural support practices.
Data collection and analysis
Data was collected in spring 2009. The head teachers filled out the questionnaire
electronically (QuestBack); filling out a paper version was optional. The pedagogical
leaders received a paper version of their questionnaire. This procedure was chosen
because one could not be sure about the availability of a computer for conducting a
net-based questionnaire for the latter group.
The head teacher at each institution collected the questionnaires from the
pedagogical leaders in a sealed envelope and sent them to the Norwegian Centre for
Child Behavioral Development, where the responses were entered into a SPSS data
file by a research assistant.
After controlling for errors in the data, matrices analyses were conducted
using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS Statistics 17). Data has
been controlled according to its distribution. If the assumption for normal distribution
of the data was not met, or if the data was on the level of an ordinal scale,
nonparametric analysis has been conducted. According to the research questions,
mainly descriptive and correlative procedures have been applied. In cases where it has
been considered appropriate, the descriptive measures have been controlled for
possibly relevant variables like gender, work experience, type of municipality and
organizational model of the institutions.
At 117 of the 133 kindergartens (response rate: 87%) where one or more of the 1159
children participating in the BONDS project were enrolled, the heads of the institution
and at least one of the pedagogical leaders of the departments (units) in the institution
have completed the questionnaires. The response rate for the latter group was
calculated to 71%.
Table 1. Respondent groups recruited from 117 kindergartens
Head teachers Pedagogical leaders
Total number of respondents (N) 117 285
Respondents’ age (years) 42.8 (s=9.3) 37.4 (s=7.9)
Experience from work in kindergarten (years) 15.9 (s=8.0) 11.5 (s=8.7)
Male (number; percentage)
Female (number; percentage)
15 (12.8 %)
102 (87.2 %)
13 (4.6 %)
272 (95.4 %)
Number of educated preschool teachers 109 (93.0 %) 200 (70.0 %)a
a29 of the respondents didn’t answer this question. The remaining 57 had other academic education (teacher;
nurse; special pedagogy) or vocational training (child and youth worker).
In general the response groups are experienced in early childhood education and
appear to be basically well-educated. The low percentage of males engaged in early
childhood education is consistent with the national statistics: in 2008, 7.2 % of the
staff in Norwegian kindergartens was male. It is worth noting the fact that the
percentage of male head teachers is three times as high as that of male pedagogical
leaders. Apparently male preschool teachers have greater ambitions and/or greater
opportunities to become a head teacher.
The presentation of our findings follows the structure given by the research questions
How much time a day do Norwegian preschool children spend outdoors?
The pedagogical leaders were asked to give an estimation of how much time a day
children in their institutions spend with outdoor play and activities, during both
summer and winter semester respectively. Respondents were asked to write down the
estimated percentage of outdoor play. No differentiation was made regarding the
children’s age. One has to have in mind that the youngest children in Norwegian
kindergartens usually take their naps outside, during both summer and winter, placed
in their strollers.
Table 2. Reported time spent on outdoor play in summer and winter
semester (n=278 pedagogical leaders)
Time in %
Percentage of day
consisting of outdoor
play in summer
Percentage of day
consisting of outdoor
play in winter semester
a The data does not follow a normal distribution (Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, Z=2.2478 summer
semester; Z = 3.145 winter semester; p < 0.001 in both variables).
b The difference between females and males is statistically significant (Mann-Whitney-test,
Z= -2,034; p < 0.05).
Table 2 reveals that a large amount of time in the institutions is dedicated to outdoor
play and activities. During the summer semester, according to the pedagogical
leaders, over two-thirds of the children’s time in kindergarten is outdoor play, and
during winter semester it remains almost a third of the time. Because outdoor
activities and play are highly valued in Norwegian society in general, and in early
childhood education in particular, it should be emphasized that these numbers are
based on self-reported data. There may be a tendency for some overestimation of
outdoor time by the pedagogical leaders. Nevertheless, in many areas of Norwegian
society it is a tradition to use the short summer even more extensively for outdoor
activities; the results may be trustworthy as a result, especially for the period May to
Responses to another statement in the questionnaire support these findings:
89% of the pedagogical leaders fully agreed that “children are usually outdoor every
day”, while an additional 8.2% agreed “a little” with this statement. Only one out of
the 286 respondents fully disagreed and one person partly disagreed, while six could
not take a position on the statement.
The minority group of male respondents reported an even higher amount of
time spent outside, but the differences were only statistically significant for the
summer semester (see footnote, table 2). No relation between time spent for outdoor
play on the one hand, and the age or experience of the pedagogical leaders on the
other hand, could be found. Moreover, there were no significant differences between
the various forms of organisation in the kindergartens (within departments; without
departments; age homogeneous groups; “base-organised”) and the time spent
What size are outdoor areas in Norwegian kindergartens?
One important aspect of the quality of outdoor environment is the size of the
institutions’ outdoor areas, specifically within the kindergartens’ fences. However,
three of the institutions did not have a fence at all, but could still define the size of
their outdoor area. Only less than half of the institutions included in this study
(representing 53 out of the 117 institutions) could provide necessary information
about size. The average size of these 53 institutions was 2619.5 m2 (s = 1943.2; see
table 3). This must be seen in relation to the rather small average number of children
in the 117 institutions (x = 55.6; s = 29.0). Each child therefore has an average of 47.1
m2 of outdoor area to themselves. By comparison, Statistics Norway (2010) reports
that an average Norwegian kindergarten provides each child with 5.5 m2 of play area
indoors. According to national regulations, indoor play areas are defined as those
parts of the kindergarten building in which children may play without severe
Table 3: Outdoor area for the total 53 institutions and for subgroups based on the type
square meters Std. Deviation Minimum
Total 53 2619.53 1943.24 102.00 8000.00
Large urban centre 24 1806.67 1537.13 102.00 5424.00
Small urban centre 16 3500.25 1949.70 432.00 8000.00
Rural 13 3036.23 2130.58 321.00 7400.00
The municipalities that the institutions belong to have been divided into large urban
centre represented by one municipality, small urban centre represented by two
municipalities and rural represented by two municipalities (see table 3). The
assumption was that the availability of outdoor areas for children’s play may vary
according to the municipality type. Institutions in rural areas may provide the largest
outdoor areas, with size of outdoor areas decreasing in the small cities and decreasing
further in large cities. The following figure 1 presents a graphic illustration of outdoor
space size among these three types of municipalities:
Figure 1. Differences in size of outdoor areas divided into three types of
The statistical analysis revealed differences in the size of outdoor space between the
three types of municipalities (ANOVA, F = 4.602; df =2; p < 0.05). Surprisingly, the
post-hoc analysis showed that only the difference between large and small urban
centres was of statistical significance (confirmed by Scheffe post hoc analysis, p <
0.05) and that there were no differences between the rural and the two other
How similar or different are Norwegian kindergartens’ outdoor environments?
It has often been claimed that Norwegian kindergartens are quite similar in terms of
properties such as outdoor environment and installations, furniture and equipment.
Several aspects of the institutional characteristics of the outdoor environment were
included in the questionnaires for head teachers; here we only want to present four
main aspects: the frequency of objects and toys, apparatuses and installations; the
existence of secret places; children’s opportunity for independent organization of their
playing; and specific moments for the one- to three-year-olds’ in relation to older
To get a picture of what kind of play and activities the kindergartens’ outdoor
areas could inspire children, one has to examine what kind of objects and toys,
apparatuses and installations children encounter. The authors of this study compiled a
list of objects, toys, apparatuses and installations on the basis of observations of a
number of institutions, personal experiences and a pilot study. Additionally, if head
teachers were unable to find objects, toys, apparatuses or installations of their
kindergartens on the list, they could add these as a response to an open question.
Table 4: Most and least frequent objects and toys, apparatuses and installations
children have available in the kindergartens outdoor area (head teachers of 117
Most frequent >70 % Least frequent < 70%
Have Don`t have Have Don`t have
Sandpit 100 % 0% “Bird’s nest swing”20 % 80 %
Sand toys 98 % 2% Obstacle course 25% 75 %
chairs 97 % 3% Stilts 28 % 72 %
Balls 97 % 3% See-saw 29 % 71 %
Toy cars 96 % 4 % “Natural hut”31 % 69 %
Swings 95 % 5 % Swing rope 32 % 68 %
Tricycles 94 % 6% Climbing wall 35 % 65 %
Slide 93 % 7 % Soccer goal 38 % 62 %
Playhouse 90 % 10 % Forest 56 % 44 %
Toboggan 87 % 13 % Large play cars or
boats (installations) 61 % 39 %
Bike trailer 80 % 20 % “Scooter”64 % 36 %
Water toys 78 % 22 % “Swing” animals
(installations) 64 % 36 %
Climbing trees 70 % 30 % Balance Equipment 69 % 31 %
Almost all institutions have sandpits, sand toys, tables and chairs, balls, toy cars,
swings, tricycles, slides and playhouses. On the other hand, less than a third of the
institutions had swing ropes, huts made of natural materials, see-saws, stilts, obstacle
courses or bird’s nest swings (a swing with a “basket” that several children can sit in).
In an international perspective it may be surprising that 70% of the institutions offer
climbable trees to the children and in one third of the institutions children have access
to climbing walls outdoors.
Of the 177 head teachers, 24 wrote that they have reserved special areas in natural
environments outside the kindergarten. Four of them reported that they have a specific area containing
a hut, campground or campfire within the fence of the kindergarten. Otherwise, the respondents did not
mention too many other objects, toys, apparatuses or installations in their institutions that were not
included in the list in the questionnaire. Some of these were: turf and huts, rope ladders, play petrol
pumps, fireplaces, excavators, basketball equipment, a variety of sensory panels and a carpentry bench.
Additionally, blankets, building blocks, ring games, ropes and tractors were mentioned as more or less
mobile objects for outdoor play.
Secret places are a part of the physical environment that could not easily be
visually controlled or approached by the staff and represent an important quality for
children’s play, both indoors and out. Secret places are well known as small, hidden areas that
add a particular value to children’s playgrounds. One may say that secret places, in the children’s
opinion, do not really exist for the staff because these hidden areas are only known to themselves.
Particularly meaningful play is according to the children often going on in these places:
Table 5: Secret places in kindergarten’s outdoor environments (N=117 head teachers)
Agree a lot Agree a
little Neither/nor Disagree a
little Disagree a lot
Outdoor areas have "secret
places" where children can
play undisturbed 53.0% 27.4% 11.1% 7.7% .9%
Above 80% of the head teachers agree that the outdoor area has such secret
places where children can play undisturbed, 11% are not sure and 8.6% rather
disagree that there are such places. In general secret places are seen as important for
children’s experience of independence and control.
Table 5 shows, in this respect, two further aspects of children given control
over taking charge of their everyday lives in kindergartens’ outdoor space regarding
their opportunity to organize themselves.
Table 6: Children’s independent organization in outdoor play (N=117 head teachers)
Agree a lot Agree a
little Neither/nor Disagree a
little Disagree a lot
Children themselves can pick
up equipment / toys /
materials that can be used in
61.2% 31.0% 3.4% 3.4% .9%
Staff must be involved for
that equipment may be used
in outdoor play (e.g. Bicycles,
buckets, balls, etc)
12.0% 35.0% 12.0% 23.9% 17.1%
Apparently Norwegian children are given some opportunities to independently
organize their play by making equipment and toys available without assistance from
staff; only 4.3% of the head teachers disagree with this statement. On the other hand,
the head teachers state that staff, to some degree, must be involved to ensure that
specific equipment (e.g. bicycles, buckets, balls, etc) is available for children’s
outdoor play. In almost half of the institutions some assistance from the staff is
necessary to provide this equipment.
Our findings indicate that Norwegian preschool children spend a significant
amount of time in kindergarten outdoors in both summer- and wintertime (three
quarters and a third of the day respectively). These results are to some degree in
accordance with the results of a recent study conducted by Lysklett (2005), although
his findings are based exclusively on outdoor kindergartens. Thus the outdoors arenas
are seemingly an important pedagogical space in terms of children’s play and
learning. We join Lysklett in asking the fundamental question of what these children
are doing when they are outdoors. However, we do not actually have sufficient
knowledge about how this time is used as a resource for and incorporated in
purposeful educational activities. Based on our practical experience we will assume
that most of the time in general is spent on free play and that most of the staff-
controlled, purposeful educational activities may still be conducted indoors.
Grahn et al. (1997) identified outdoor time as an important indicator for
quality in early childhood education. On the basis of their own and other studies, they
claim that a higher amount of time spent outdoors provides better opportunities for
more and undisturbed play, which again leads to better conditions for children’s
learning and development.
The fact that children in summer spend more than two-thirds of their time in
kindergarten outdoors must be related to the quality of this environment. In this
respect, size can be seen as one important quality indicator. According to our data
Norwegian kindergartens offer relatively large outdoor space to their children, almost
50 m2 per child. Furthermore, one of four kindergartens has access to specific natural
spaces outside their fences which are used on a regular basis and thereby underline
what great value is attributed to the outdoors in Norwegian preschool education.
Contrary to our assumptions our findings indicate that children in small cities
may enjoy the largest outdoor areas for play in Norwegian kindergartens, while, as
expected, kindergartens in large cities provide the smallest outdoor areas. Two aspects
one should have in mind when interpreting these results are: firstly, there are massive
variations within each of the three types of municipalities (see table 3 and figure 1).
Secondly, the kindergartens in rural municipalities may have somewhat smaller
outdoor areas within their fences; nevertheless, they will normally have a variety of
natural environments easily accessible directly outside the fence.
The size of the outdoor area may also be considered a basic prerequisite for
the existence of secret places. The availability of such protected places, where a child
can be on its own or together with only one or two other children, a place where they
may find silence and peace by withdrawing from others, may be quite necessary for
mental health and wellbeing in a busy kindergarten life. Even if a very small minority
of head teachers assess such places as rather dangerous and therefore deliberately try
to avoid having them, secret places are in general seen as pedagogically valuable in
Norwegian early childhood education.
The opportunity to unwind from playing and being together with many others
will give children the chance to focus on their own experiences, intentions and needs,
and to recuperate and prepare for further togetherness and play with others. According
to Grahn et al. (1997), a lack of such places may result in the children feeling restless,
needing to move from place to place to find peace, or protecting themselves mentally
by playing alongside rather than with other children. Research on Swedish
playgrounds (Grahn et al. 1997) showed that children have more difficulties in finding
the balance between intensive, rough-and-tumble play and a calmer, more focused
and restorative form of play when there is a shortage of such secret places.
Secret places provide children with a sense of control over their play and
institutional life in general, which increases their opportunities for varied and
meaningful activities, as well as the experience of active participation altogether
acknowledged as an important indicator for quality in early childhood education
In general our findings indicate a relatively rich and varied, but nevertheless fairly uniform,
composition of the outdoor environment in Norwegian kindergartens. It appears to be a rather
ordinary phenomenon in Norwegian kindergartens that children themselves can pick
up equipment, materials and toys they actually want to use in their outdoor play.
An important question related to an inclusive early childhood education is
whether the outdoors are equally suitable for all children, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and
The organization of outdoor areas as well as access to toys and equipment was
rated as quite suitable from the head teacher’s point of view. Availability of tools and
materials and the design of outdoor areas are crucial to children’s meaning making.
According to Nordin-Hultman (2004, p.74), whether and how the staff understands
and acknowledges the importance of the physical (and social) environment depends
on the prevailing discourses and the categories used as analytical tools. Nordin-
Hultman refers to Rinaldi, who claims that children's things (materials, tools, etc.) are
not only objects that they handle, but that these things also interact with children so
that they become subjects in relation to the children. In this way, spaces, materials and
tools provided for children in kindergartens mainly reflect the staff's attitudes to what
is considered suitable for children relative to their age and the staff’s assumptions
about meaningful activities for children. Children in kindergartens that offer greater
variation in space, equipment, materials and toys, will experience an environment that
is more stimulating and appealing to their independent activities and play. Thus, some
children may be excluded from meaningful outdoor activities because their
environment is not rich enough or because it is difficult for the children themselves to
get access to and use toys and materials in the kindergarten's outdoor space.
Through the increasing institutionalization of childhood, children are to a
greater extent dependent on the staff’s values and expertise in relation to the need for
rough and risky play (see e.g. Sandseter 2009). Our results provide no information
about how staff relate to exploratory and risky outdoor play. But both the size and the
time spent outdoors and the fact that natural areas are used by many institutions
indicate that kindergartens to a certain extent give children opportunities for play and
exploratory activities as a basis for valuable experiences.
The fact that almost three-quarters of the institutions give their children access
to climbing trees and climbing walls might suggest that the staffs appreciates risky play. Often
children are the experts at finding the level of challenge that fits their skills (Sandseter
2009), but this still depends on the environments that provide the challenges leading
to excitement and coping experiences.
Over a quarter of the kindergartens report that they have specific areas for
children one to three years of age; this means that there is a certain inherent
opportunity for progression in challenges regarding the use of outdoor areas. For
kindergartens where the youngest children have their own separated playground, it
may be challenging enough to move from their safe area into the arenas of play for
older children. When the children get older, their interests widen, and motor skills
develop, they will possibly want to explore “more of the world” and, as a first step,
they will be able to use parts of the outdoor area that allow more energetic play and
challenging physical activities.
An environment that allows children to relate to it in various and continuously
changing ways may be of high significance for their experiences, learning and
development. Our study reveals that almost all children in Norwegian kindergartens to
some extent can pick out toys and materials they want to use in outdoor play
themselves. Loose materials and a variety of toys that children can carry around and
use without limitations in the kindergarten's outdoor area can help ensure high-quality
play activities over time. What materials or toys the children can freely use will thus
influence how children use them and develop their play activities.
Traditional toys such as buckets and spades can to some extent have different
meanings attributed to them depending on the context in which they are used. Toys
and materials of natural or neutral character, such as stones, bushes and acorns, give
children truly greater opportunity to determine the possibilities and limitations. A
virtually unlimited access to play with natural materials as well as more pre-
determined games may result in more imaginative and creative play. Children can
choose to ignore the traditional uses of predetermined objects and freely decide how
they can be used in other contexts (Grahn et al, 1997).
Our study shows a relatively high proportion of kindergartens have an
overabundance of relatively traditional installations and toys. Less than a third of the
institutions provide more nature-related installations like swing ropes in trees, natural
shelter, obstacle courses, etc., that are continuously available for the children. Thus
one can assume that the children experience relatively large variations and differences
in the kindergarten’s outdoor settings, to the degree that it can affect their play and
thus their learning and development processes as well.
In practice, our results may be used for conscious and knowledge-based
reflections about the significance ascribed to outdoor environments. Being outdoors in
itself may not be a sufficient pedagogical value and provides learning and
development in accordance with the national guidelines. For that reason, one should
be careful that a major focus on being outdoors does not become a kind of hidden
curriculum. That may lead the pedagogical staff to less considered prioritizations of
some themes and subjects while others may not get the attention and time they
deserve. Some subjects from the national framework plan, such as nature and science,
could be most easily realized outdoors; other subjects, such as emergent literacy, may
be generally but not exclusively better suited to an indoor setting. Therefore, further
practice-oriented studies should be conducted on a comparative basis to analyse how
the main goals and subjects defined in the Norwegian framework plan are worked
with in different spaces.
In order to assess richness and availability of spaces and materials, more
qualitative, in-depth studies are required, as well as quantitative documentations of what children are
actually doing in institutional outdoor contexts. Only further well-designed studies can bring forward
necessary knowledge to determine whether or not the outdoor environment per se has an inclusive or
exclusive function and whether or not different types of environments are more or less beneficial for
specific groups of children. In the meantime, according to Faber Taylor and Kuo (2006, 136), we still
have to wait for methodologically profound studies that confirm preliminary findings that “... contact
with nature is supportive of healthy child development in several domains – cognitive, social, and
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