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

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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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ORIGINAL PAPER
Calm active and focused: Children’s responses
to an organic outdoor learning environment
Sonya Nedovic Anne-Marie Morrissey
Received: 20 April 2011 / Accepted: 7 September 2011 / Published online: 10 March 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract This study reports on children’s observed responses to natural features intro-
duced 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 kinder-
garten 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 interac-
tions. These findings provide further evidence of the importance of providing children with
naturalized outdoor play spaces.
Keywords Early childhood Natural and organic learning environments
Outdoor play spaces
Introduction
Over the past 20 years, children in many urbanised western societies have been provided
fewer opportunities for outdoor play in their home environments and local communities
(Hofferth 2008; Little and Wyver 2008). There are a range of reasons for this, including
children’s increased involvement with new technology and an increasing emphasis on
avoiding risk on the part of parents and legislators (Little and Wyver 2008). Others blame
increases in housing and developments for reductions in public space where children could
otherwise play (Bilton 2005; Little and Wyver 2008; Louv 2008). These developments are
a concern to early childhood experts who stress that children need outdoor connections
with nature to reach their optimal level of physical and cognitive functioning (Louv 2008).
As explained by Richardson (2008), attendance at early childhood settings such as
S. Nedovic A.-M. Morrissey (&)
School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC 3125, Australia
e-mail: morram@deakin.edu.au
123
Learning Environ Res (2013) 16:281–295
DOI 10.1007/s10984-013-9127-9
kindergartens and childcare centres might be many children’s last hope of reaping the
benefits of connecting with nature.
The types of environments which are provided for children have been shown to pow-
erfully influence their play and development (Greenfield 2004). Recent research describes
a number of positive effects of natural play spaces. For example, Fjortoft and Sageie found
that, when children were provided with a garden containing ‘mixed vegetation’ and ‘varied
topography’, they were far more likely to engage in physically active play such as jumping,
running, climbing and crawling (Fjortoft and Sageie 2000). In another study, Fjortoft
compared the play of two groups of preschool children: one group spent time every day
playing on flat playground land, and the other spent the same period of time every day on
uneven natural ground, surrounded by rocks and trees. After a year, the children who had
played in the latter play environment tested better for balance, agility and general motor
fitness (Fjortoft 2001).
Grahn and colleagues found that children who attended a child care centre where they
played daily in an orchard surrounded by pasture and woods had greater motor coordi-
nation and concentration than children who attended a child care centre where they played
daily in an outdoor environment which was surrounded by high buildings, had low plants
and a brick path (Grahn et al. 1997). The finding on children’s concentration was rein-
forced by Wells and Evans (2003), who discovered that frequent contact with nature helped
to improve children’s attention spans. Franklin (2008) observed that the richest forms of
pretend play occur in gardens that provide natural features and materials such as trees,
grass, twigs and pebbles. The presence of greenery and trees has also been found to
increase creativity in children’s play (Taylor et al. 1998). Titman (1994) discovered that
children are intrigued by: the different colours found in nature; trees, woodlands, and
variations in topography; and combinations of shaded and sunny areas. Other studies have
also found that children prefer to play in natural and wild spaces (Moore and Wong 1997;
Rivkin 1995; Titman 1994).
Louv argues that ‘‘direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional
health’’ (2008 p. 35), with children exposed to natural settings generally experiencing
lower stress levels and enhanced cognitive functioning (Goodenough 2008; Louv 2008).
The outdoors is a place where children go to make sense of their world (Perry 2008), and
where they can practice and refine the skills they will require later in life (Little and Wyver
2008). Casey (2007) argues that outdoor play fosters children’s developing friendships and
provides opportunities for children to negotiate relationships. Wells and Evans found that
town environments that were high in levels of naturalness, such as in provision of window
views, indoor plants and natural outdoor surfaces, appeared to provide a buffer for children
against stressful events (Wells and Evans 2003). Perry (2008) postulates that quality,
naturalistic gardens provide a safe haven for children to explore ‘‘early peer-culture themes
of life and death, danger and safety, power and control’’ (p. 99).
These reported positive effects of natural environments on children can be explained, at
least in part, by the concept of biophilia (Wilson 1984). This posits that, owing to our
evolutionary history, where people survived through their dependency on nature, human
beings still today have an innate affinity for nature which must be realised in order to
obtain optimal health and wellbeing (Kellert 2005; Wilson 1984). Kellert defines biophilia
as ‘a complex of weak genetic tendencies to value nature that are instrumental in human
physical, material, emotional, intellectual and moral well-being’’ (2005, p. 50). If these
tendencies are not supported, biophobia can develop in a child, leading to an aversion
towards, and a discomfort with, nature, and an attitude that nature is simply a disposable
resource (Kellert 2005; White 2001).
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Another theoretical framework that could help to explain the reported positive effects of
natural environments is Gibson’s concept of affordances (Heft 1988). This framework
seeks to account for the functional significance or meaning of environmental features for
individuals. Rather than describing environments solely in terms of their physical features,
affordances theory aims to account for the potential experiences or opportunities for action
‘afforded’ by environmental features. These affordances will vary according to the char-
acteristics of the individuals who interact with the environment. The concept of affor-
dances can thus account for the different forms of physical activity and experience
provided by natural features such as bushes, trees, and uneven topography. Trees, for
example, can provide opportunities to climb, to look down from or up into, to hide, to look
through leaves, to experience dappled light, etc. Uneven topography can provide oppor-
tunities for the mastery of specific motor skills that would not be provided by a smooth and
even surface.
The concept of affordances could also explain how the availability of natural or organic
‘loose parts’, such as leaves, twigs, grass and stones, can enhance children’s imaginative
play (Franklin 2008). These materials are usually abundant, easily collected, carried, and
shared, and have what could be characterized as ‘abstract’ properties that lend themselves
to imaginative transformation. This makes them ideal resources for groups of children
engaged in pretend play. Affordance theory would also propose that natural materials and
phenomena such as water, dirt, leaves, plants, sunlight and wind provide children with rich,
varied, complex, and often soothing, sensory experiences.
In summary, research and theory clearly support the value of providing children with
natural play spaces, rich in organic materials. White and Stoecklin (2008) outline the
characteristics of an organic play space as including:
water, plentiful indigenous vegetation including trees, bushes, flowers and long
grasses that children can explore and interact with, animals, creatures in ponds,
butterflies, bugs, sand, diversity of colour, textures and materials, ways to experience
the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather, natural places to sit in, on,
under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade, different levels and nooks
and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views and structures,
equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations,
including plentiful loose parts. (p. 1)
This article reports on a case study of observed child responses to natural and organic
features, introduced as part of the redevelopment of an outdoor area for a group of 18
children in a Melbourne kindergarten. The centre had recently opened, and was located in
an attractively renovated older style building in a middle-class suburb. The adult partici-
pants in the study included the group’s teacher and her assistant, and the centre director.
A redevelopment of the outdoor play area was planned, to create a more natural and
organic garden play space. It was decided that the expressed preferences of director, staff
and children would guide the development of the play space. The aim of the research was
to investigate staff perspectives on children’s responses to the introduction of a number of
natural and organic elements into the play space. What would be the preferences of staff
and children in the development of the natural and organic play space? What would staff
notice in relation to children’s responses to specific introduced natural and organic
features?
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Method
Using an action research cycle, the aim of this project was to redevelop an outdoor play
area for three- and four-year-olds in consultation with staff and children, and then explore
staff perspectives on children’s responses to the new features. Consistent with typical
action research procedure (Kemmis and McTaggart 1988), the teachers and children were
to consult with one another about what they would like to see in the garden. As the garden
developed physically, and began to embody the children’s and teachers’ desires, teachers
observed the children’s and their own responses to their realised ideas.
Participants
The participants in this study were Ella, a kindergarten teacher, Leila, a kindergarten
assistant, and Sophie, the centre director (pseudonyms are used). The action research group
also included a researcher (the first author), who was able to collect and collate data
throughout the cycle, two crucial aspects of any successful action research project (Elliot
and Davis 2008). Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) explain that one of the characteristics of
a group of action research participants is that all participants share an interest in the
thematic concern on which they all collaborate. All members of this group worked at
the centre, and were all committed to ongoing collaborations on the development of the
garden.
Procedure
The action research cycle works through a spiral of planning, action, observation and
reflection on the consequences of action (Holly et al. 2005). After one cycle has been
completed, a new cycle, based on new understandings, begins. It is an approach that has
been used in Australian early childhood settings, such as to research the effectiveness of
the setting up of an outdoor learning environment (Lambert 2006), and the enhancing of
children’s environmental awareness through the arts (Tarr 2008). This case study com-
prised one large action research cycle, with one substantial planning period, a combined
implementation/observation period, and an overall reflection period. It was expected that,
with the establishment of the garden, the action research cycle would continue through
processes of on-going maintenance and modification.
The planning phase
In the planning phase of the project, Ella, Leila and Sophie were interviewed about what
they wanted to see in the garden. The researcher and the three participants also agreed that
Ella and Leila would work towards discovering the children’s views on what they wanted
to see in the garden. A mosaic approach was adopted, using drawings, photographs and
discussions (Clark and Moss 2005; MacDonald 2009). Children were encouraged to draw
pictures of their ideal garden, and to photograph aspects of the garden that were important
to them and then explain why these aspects were significant for them. Each child was
provided with the opportunity to produce two different drawings, on two separate days, in
response to the question ‘‘Can you draw a picture of the best garden you can imagine
playing in?’’. While taking photographs, each child spent time with the two educators Ella
and Leila and the child held a Pentax V10 digital camera. The children were each asked to
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take two photographs of aspects of the garden important to them. The educators showed
each child the image of what they had taken on the camera screen, immediately after
photos were taken, to ensure they photographed what they intended to. Thus staff sup-
ported each child through this process. Ella, Leila and the researcher also conducted group-
time discussions and one-to-one conversations with the children about their favourite
things to play with in gardens. The responses of 18 three- to four-year-olds were collected.
Every child’s expression of a specific design feature, such as a suggestion of water in the
environment, was considered to be one unit of data. These units were then grouped into
categories such as ‘plants’, ‘water’, ‘animals/insects’, ‘stones/rocks’, etc., for analysis by
the researcher. These categories were based on the groupings that arose naturally from
children’s responses. Children’s responses were also considered in relation to Casey’s
(2007) categories of activity-driven and open-ended learning outcomes. Activity driven
learning outcomes relate to the mastery of specific skills, such as riding a bike or climbing
over an A-frame. Open-ended play driven outcomes, on the other hand, relate to a child’s
ability to be ‘‘spontaneous, innovative, flexible or reflective’’ (p. 36).
After Ella and Leila felt they had obtained adequate information from the children, they
met again with the researcher to discuss the children’s responses. After this meeting, the
researcher analysed the responses of both participants and the children and, based on these
data, the researcher and Sophie wrote up an action plan for the garden. The researcher then
presented this plan to Ella and Leila to verify that it reflected their suggestions for change.
The action plan was also displayed on the wall in the kindergarten room, and Ella and Leila
discussed it with the children, outlining the changes that would be made to the garden and
the reasons why these changes would be made.
The implementation and observation phases
After collecting the data, Sophie and the researcher met to create a design for the garden
based on the ideas and preferences of the participants and the children. The design was
gradually implemented over 6 weeks, and the implementation phase overlapped with the
observation phase. A specific garden feature was implemented over each weekend, and
Ella and Leila would then spend the following 5 weekdays observing children’s responses
to the feature. At the end of the 6 weeks, there was a further 2 weeks of observing
children’s play and behaviours in response to the new garden, when staff observed children
for 5 h on each of the 10 days, adding up to 50 h in total for this phase of the study. Over
this period, the staff participants based their observations on a series of open-ended
questions about children’s activities and responses in relation to the features of the organic
environment (see the Appendix for a list of these questions).
The reflection phase
At the beginning of the reflection phase, the researcher collected all of the written
observations that Ella and Leila had made during the observation phase. The researcher
also held separate meetings with Ella and Leila, to read through their observations and
confirm their understandings of these. During these meetings, the researcher also asked
Ella and Leila to describe some of their personal observations and reflections about the new
implementations, and asked them a range of open ended questions as a method of
encouraging then to extend upon their answers. They were also asked to reflect on what
they saw as positive and/or negative effects of the implementation of the natural features in
the garden.
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Findings
Garden preferences of participants and children
Findings revealed that both the (adult) participants and the children preferred that the
proposed redevelopment of the garden include a range of open ended learning experiences
which were rich in natural elements such as greenery, flowers, and natural materials. Ella,
Leila and Sophie all felt that children would benefit from more trees, plants, rocks, and
other natural and organic material in the garden, and less synthetic and structured materials
and equipment. They argued that natural and organic elements would provide sensory
stimulation, enrich children’s play, and increase their awareness and appreciation of nature.
In addition to the general preference for natural and organic elements, two specific sug-
gestions were made—Ella stated that she wanted to use natural and recycled materials to
create a teepee in the garden, and both Ella and Sophie wanted to replace most of an
extensive concrete path with tan bark mulch.
The children’s responses, as expressed through drawings, photographs and discussions,
also showed an overwhelming preference for natural elements and affordances to be
included in the garden. Figure 1illustrates these preferences, and shows that, while some
children indicated they wanted non-natural elements such as commercial toys and climbing
apparatus, these categories accounted for only 9 % of children’s responses. The most
popular elements for children were included in the plants category, such as fruit, vege-
tables, flowers, herbs, leaves, and other plants. This category (36 responses) was more than
twice as popular than the second most popular categories of water and soil/mud (17
responses each).
In response to the expressed preferences of participants and children, a design for the
garden was created incorporating Ella’s and Sophie’s suggestions for a teepee and path
replacement, as well as plantings of greenery and flowers, and the integration of natural
loose materials such as mulch, rocks, pebbles, pine cones, shells and wood stumps.
Fig. 1 Children’s expressions of their favourite aspects of outdoor play
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Children’s responses to natural features of the garden
The teepee
Ella and Leila both reported that the teepee encouraged richer and longer-lasting imagi-
native play. Leila described the children’s responses to it thus:
The teepee has. been successful because it has initiated very deep dramatic play,
which is important in a children’s garden. The teepee has become everything from a
house to a kennel, a lost kitten’s home, a boat, a volcano and a rocket ship. At times
it is something that the children must quickly huddle into for safety, but at other
times it is a dangerous, life threatening structure which could spit out lava, fire or
poison toward any person who dare approach.
Leila also felt that being in a fixed area of the garden meant that the teepee fostered a
sense of security and familiarity, encouraging the children to continue and develop their
play over long periods of time.
Replacement of the concrete path with mulch
Ella noted that this change had generated more open space, and was more ‘‘child friendly’’.
Both Ella and Leila reported that the replacement of the concrete path with an area of
mulch had led to an increase in children’s physical activity, as described by Ella:
Children have been more active and physical [and there has been] an increase in
physically active playballs, chasing, running. [The change] is fostering [the
children’s] motor development.
Leila wondered if the children were ‘‘more inclined to test their physical skills on the
mulch than the concrete’’, while Ella felt that the children moved with more confidence on
the mulch. Ella also felt that their new found physical confidence on the mulch has also led
to ‘‘shy’’ children being less inhibited and ‘‘brought out of their shell’’.
Green plantings
Both Ella and Leila commented that the children seemed calmer and more relaxed with the
introduction of green plants. Ella explained that the children had ‘‘slowed down their
play’’, and that they would frequently ‘‘stop to examine the fine detail of a root or leaf
system’’. She stated that the children seemed ‘‘more placid’’ and were less likely to become
stressed or agitated. Leila explained that:
There is far less pushing, shoving and kicking happening between the boys, and the
children seem less hyperactive now than ever before. The children are relaxed when
surrounded by the greenery. Children enjoy breathing close to the leaves and
watching them sway back and forward with each breath. It slows them down.
Flower plantings
Ella and Leila both found that the children engaged in close observations of the flowers,
and that positive small group interactions were fostered around the flower tubs. Ella noted
that:
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the children have slowed down their play, been motivated to sit down, and
examine fine details of nature. Once another child comes over to look at the flowers,
a conversation inevitably develops between the two, usually about the flowers but
then about other things as well.
Leila felt that the children’s interactions around the flower pots were ‘‘more respectful,
quiet and caring than in any other area of the garden’’. She also described how the children
experienced the soil in the pots:
Children have been learning the difference between dry soil and mud by putting their
hands into the dirt in the pot plants and then pouring water in. They have learned how
mud is formed and how to mix in specific amounts of water or soil to create different
mud consistencies.
Natural loose materials
Both Ella and Leila noted that the children had been very drawn to the loose natural
materials, and that their play had slowed down whilst they spent time closely examining
their features. Ella explained:
I was watching a group of boys who usually engage in only gross motor and rough
and tumble play, and one of them discovered the new pebbles which had been added
to the digging patch. He lifted it up to the sunlight and then invited the other boys to
come and observe the way it glistened in the sun. The other boys, who had been
running around in circles, stopped, looked at the pebble and then found their own to
observe. The boys stood around in a circle and commented about the ways the
pebbles were different from one another. This came as a surprise to me—to see the
boys concentrating on something else when they could be running or play fighting
each other.
Leila described how children collected pebbles and made intricate patterns with them on
the ground, or took off their shoes and socks and pressed the soles of their feet on to pine
cones. Sometimes children sat next to the wooden stumps and counted the circles or
‘lifelines’ of the stumps.
Ella and Leila also commented that children had been requesting to take natural loose
parts home with them, usually to give to their parents. Leila explained:
The children all want me to hold onto these little natural treasures they’ve found and
look after them until home time so that they can take them for their parents. Leaves,
stones, gum nuts and even interesting pieces of tan bark have been handed to me with
pleading faces. It really is as though the world will end if they can’t take these things
home with them, so I let them. There have been two or three children who had been
experiencing some separation anxiety and since they have been taking these treasures
home, they seem to be coping better. Now, when they ask for their parents and begin
to get a little teary, I suggest they go and collect some treasures to take home, and they
come back to me several minutes later with special leaves and interesting pebbles.
Ella and Leila also both insisted that the incidence and depth of dramatic play had
significantly increased since the introduction of the natural loose parts. Ella explained:
There has been a significant increase in dramatic play and in the depth of imagination
demonstrated by the children in this play. The children have become dinosaurs and
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the pebbles are their food. The children have become babies and the pine cones are
their bottles. The children have become lizards and they must find water to survive.
The list of examples goes on and on.
Leila also described how children would touch and explore both the small and large
materials, including pine cones, pebbles, wood stumps and hay bales, and then frequently
go on to use them in dramatic play.
Negative effects
Ella and Leila reported only two negative effects on children’s behaviour from the
implementation of the natural features in the garden. Ella stated that the children used the
teepee as something to hide behind in order to engage in forbidden and unsafe activity such
as ‘‘sword fighting’’ with sticks. In addition, both Ella and Leila were frustrated by children
picking leaves and flowers, and stepping on plants.
Discussion
There were striking similarities between the views of the participants and the children in
relation to what they saw as constituting an ideal children’s garden. Ella, Leila, Sophie and
the children all stressed that children’s gardens should be organic in nature and feature a
range of different natural materials and affordances. With regard to the children’s request
for organic affordances, this finding did not come as a surprise given the multitude of
studies indicating that children prefer to play with natural materials (Moore and Wong
1997; Titman 1994). As White and Stoecklin (2008) explain: ‘‘Children want areas filled
with nature, from plants, trees, flowers, and water, to animals and insects’’ (White and
Stoecklin 2008). On the other hand, the finding that the teachers also wanted the children’s
garden to be organic in nature is unique. Studies investigating teacher’s preferences for
aesthetic and sensory aspects of gardens are difficult to come by. Some evidence is pro-
vided by Elliot and Davis (2008), however, who found that ‘‘many early childhood
practitioners view organic gardens as being too difficult or inappropriate, and subsequently
opt for commercial play spaces’’ (p. 5).
The findings provide vindication for the adults’ and the children’s preferences for
natural features in the garden. As reported by Ella and Leila, the effect of their imple-
mentation on the children’s activities was overwhelmingly positive. One of the strongest
findings was the effect of natural features and materials on children’s dramatic play. Ella
and Leila both described how the teepee and the provision of loose natural materials led to
more frequent, deeper and longer lasting play. This occurred in the absence of the sort of
additional props that are often provided to enhance children’s imaginative play, such as
dress-up materials or plastic tea sets. Similarly, Kirkby’s research also found that chil-
dren’s play in bushy, natural cubbies, without any other props, produced play that was
complex, sustained and creative (Kirkby 1989). Leila suggested that the fixed location of
the teepee provided children with a sense of security and familiarity that encouraged play
over long periods. Herrington and Stundtmann (1998) also found that cubbies made of
vegetative materials supported children’s sense of belonging within the environment.
Ella and Leila reported that children’s physical activity increased with a greater inci-
dence of running and vigorous movement in the mulched area that replaced the concrete
path. This finding supports the proposition that landscaped based play spaces are just as
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effective at encouraging physical activity as equipment-based environments (Casey 2007;
Herrington and Studtmann 1998). As Casey argues, children will become active when they
are provided with ‘‘slopes and tunnels, things to jump off and through, exciting things to
chase and interesting places to hide and seek’’ (2007, p. 9). It raises the issue of the relative
effectiveness of fixed and rigid equipment such as climbing frames and balancing boards
compared to thoughtful and interesting landscaping of children’s play spaces.
Green plants, flowers and natural materials were implemented in the garden design
because, during the planning phase, the director and staff felt these characteristics would
encourage open ended play and sensory engagement, as well as a connection to, and
appreciation of, nature. They had not expected, however, that these affordances would soothe
the children in their play. Ella and Leila’s perception that the children’s play was calmer, and
that they were less likely to become agitated or distressed, is supported by various studies that
show that green, natural garden growth has a soothing effect on children (Goodenough 2008;
Louv 2008; Young 2008), and that they respond with less psychological distress to stressful
events (Wells and Evans 2003). This is consistent with Ella and Leila’s observations that,
after these natural affordances had been implemented, the children seemed less fractious
during play and less likely to become agitated when things did not go as they had hoped or
planned. Leila also described how taking found natural materials home with them, appeared
to assist children suffering separation anxiety to better cope with their feelings.
Previous research has demonstrated that organic gardens can enhance children’s
capacity to concentrate (Grahn et al. 1997; Wells 2000). The present study found that
natural materials and organic growth appeared to slow down and focus the children’s play.
Ella and Leila reported that children who would usually only ever engage in gross motor
play, began to stop and observe the fine details of pebbles. They suggested that the
introduction of natural materials into the garden, providing beautiful and interesting scents,
textures and fragrances, motivated the children to slow down and examine these features.
Previously, when the garden was comparatively bare of these materials, there was little for
the children to focus on. This suggests that the more organic sensory stimulation the
children in this study were exposed to, the more inclined they were to slow down and
absorb these natural affordances.
It was found that, when the tubs of flowers were introduced into the garden, small
groups of children would sit and stand around the tubs and, whilst doing this, spend more
time engaging in conversations with their peers. It was also noted that these conversations
were more respectful, quiet and caring than communications in any other parts of the
garden. Wells and Evans (2003) found that natural areas draw children together. Other
authors argue that outdoor play in naturalistic environments fosters children’s developing
friendships (Casey 2007) and understandings of other people (Perry 2008), and that out-
door experiences are critical to social development (Greenfield 2004).
Ella and Leila reported only two negative effects from the implementation of the natural
garden features. Ella resolved the issue of children engaging in potentially unsafe activities
out-of-sight behind the teepee, by putting up a mirror near the teepee to reflect what was
happening there. This strategy appears highly appropriate as it allows children a sense of
privacy while at the same time facilitating necessary supervision by staff. As Kirkby (1989)
suggests, children’s gardens should be designed with small nooks that enable children to be
‘seen but not seen’’ (p. 169), to provide children with a sense that they cannot be seen when
actually they can.
Both Ella and Leila found it frustrating that the children would pick flowers and leaves
or tread on plants. There are several possible responses to such behaviour. One is to
organize plantings so that they are not so vulnerable to being picked or stepped on. Another
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is to educate children about caring for plants. Alternatively, rather than viewing this
behaviour in a negative light, it can be interpreted as a natural developmental phase in
children’s response to nature. This would accord with Kellert’s theory that preschool aged
children are in the phase of ‘domination’ or ‘mastery over nature’, a necessary stage in the
development of biophilia (Kellert 2005). Children’s flower and leaf picking is a typical
example of this behaviour, as they generate physical control and dominance over the
flowers. According to Kellert, children must pass through this phase to develop into adults
who appreciate nature and have an emotional connection to it. From this perspective, the
children’s behaviour can be seen in a positive light.
Recommendations for research and practice
The adult participants in this study reported that the introduction of natural and organic
features into the garden induced positive effects in children’s play, physical activity and
interactions. It would be valuable to investigate whether such positive effects of natural
and organic features can also be demonstrated in other settings. The finding that the
teachers in this study preferred organic outdoor play spaces is also one which warrants
further investigation. It would be interesting to explore more widely early childhood
professionals’ and practitioners’ views on the role and significance of natural and organic
features in early childhood programmes. Do they see them as important? Are they familiar
with the theories on the developmental significance of children’s relationship to the natural
environment, and with the research evidence in this area? If we can discover more about
the reasons why early childhood practitioners do or do not desire organic play spaces for
their programmes, we can learn more about how to encourage current and future practi-
tioners to become aware of the crucial role of nature in children’s well-being and devel-
opment, and to advocate for natural and organic early childhood environments.
In line with the literature, the adults in this study reported a range of educational
benefits for the children from the introduction of natural and organic features as part of the
redevelopment of the garden (Casey 2007; Crook 2005; Curtis and Carter 2003; Rich-
ardson 2008). The new natural features were based on the expressed desires of the director,
staff and children. The positive outcomes suggest that staff and children’s voices should be
regarded as essential components in the planning or redevelopment of outdoor spaces for
children. The findings also suggest that it could be fruitful for managers and practitioners
to explore the potential benefits of greater use of landscaping and natural and organic
materials, as alternatives to the synthetic and commercial surfaces and materials, as well as
the fixed structures that dominate the outside play areas of so many early childhood
settings. It is to be hoped that, in the future, early childhood practitioners can form their
own action research groups and complete research in their children’s service settings to
discover ways in which more natural and organic outdoor environments can promote
children’s well-being, learning and development.
Conclusion
Malone and Tranter (cited in White 2004) stress that, for some children, kindergartens
might be their last hope of connecting with nature. Given the degree of research indicating
how crucial children’s interactions with the natural world are, it is the responsibility of early
childhood practitioners to step in and advocate for children’s rights to experience organic
Learning Environ Res (2013) 16:281–295 291
123
play spaces. This is particularly the case for children who spend much of their time in
childcare settings. The opportunity is ripe to investigate what children and their teachers
want to see in gardens provided for them, and whether these feelings and attitudes change
after experiencing them first hand. It is important that the views, attitudes and ideas of
children and teachers on outdoor play spaces are taken notice of, and that future gardens for
children can be designed which reflect their desires and needs. The voices of children and
their teachers in this study suggest that both children and staff can reap benefits from
spending their days in thoughtfully designed, organic learning environments.
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.
292 Learning Environ Res (2013) 16:281–295
123
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.
Learning Environ Res (2013) 16:281–295 293
123
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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... In Australia, New Zealand, and many European and Scandinavian countries, educators have been teaching in natural outdoor classrooms for decades in all terrains and seasons (Bentsen & Jensen, 2012;Brown & Heaton, 2015;Gelter, 2000;Legge, 2018;McDonnell, 2013). OCs also lend themselves to many pedagogies, such as Deweyan experiential learning (Bentsen & Jenson, 2012;Jolly &Sandberg, 2018), play-based learning (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013), place-based education (Lisle, 2018;Smith, 2002;Ward, 2018;William & Taylor, 1999) and inquiry-based learning (Lebak, 2005). ...
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... Helping behavior-directed cooperation or collaboration [59] Social-emotional skills, social development [58,69,77] Prosocial behavior; decreased antisocial or challenging behaviors [32,52,54,60,76] Positive peer play interactions (decreased play disruptions and play disconnections) [32,55,58] Empathy; sense of compassion, concern, or responsibility for others [52,59,60] Respect and positive relationships with adults and peers [32,65] Responsibility for actions [52,66] Knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships [59] Approaches to Learning Creativity, creative thinking, imagination [54,59,74,78] Persistence, perseverance, determination [32,55,60,67] Risk analysis/anticipate outcome [59] Cognitive: General [32,65] Social and Emotional Development Empathy; sense of compassion, concern, or responsibility for others [52,59,60] Positive peer play interactions (decreased play disruptions and play disconnections) [32,55,58] Goal-directed cooperation or collaboration [51,59,60,76] Sense of community/belonging; feelings of "at home" in the world; feelings of inclusion and equality across genders and cultures [60,65,76] New perspectives [77] Strong Helping behavior-directed cooperation or collaboration [59] Empathy; sense of compassion, concern, or responsibility for others [52,59,60] Sense of community/belonging; feelings of "at home" in the world; feelings of inclusion and equality across genders and cultures [60,65,76] Respect and positive relationships with adults and peers [32,65] Responsibility for actions [ Modeling/monitoring for proenvironmental behavior with peers and family (such as making sure family recycles, teaching other children about how to treat animals) [51] Approaches to Learning ...
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... children were attracted to outdoor spaces with higher levels of trees and grass (Coley, Kuo, & Sullivan , 1997 ... Wells, a public housing development in Chicago, Illinois . ... of the families in Ida B. Wells receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (Chicago Housing Authority, 1992 ...