The Play of the Outdoors in Constructions of a 'Good' Childhood: An Interdisciplinary Study of Outdoor Provision in Early Childhood Education in Urban Settings
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AbstractThis study explores constructions of a good childhood as enacted in the outdoor play experiences of young children in early childhood education settings in urban environments in Ireland. The conceptual and exploratory framework for the study was shaped by the integration of theories from the fields of sociology, history, geography and psychology with a particular focus on the work of theorists who have worked from ecological perspectives (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Gibson,1979; Kytta, 2002; 2004; Reed, 1996; Tuan, 1974a; 1977) and those who have considered concepts of time, space and place in analyses of children’s everyday lives (Ceppi & Zini, 1998; Ennew, 1995; Mayall, 2002; Zeiher et al, 2007). The methodology utilised incorporated multi-modal qualitative fieldwork in four diverse early childhood education settings in Dublin during 2005. Additionally, two surveys were administered: one focusing on general outdoor provision in early childhood education in Ireland, and one, on the place of the outdoors in training. At the core of the research were the everyday outdoor experiences of eight children aged between 1 and 5 years. Their perspectives, as well as those of their parents, peers, the early years practitioners who worked with them, and a range of other adult stakeholders provided the focus of analysis. The analysis of the data led to the development of a four-stage exploratory model, The Orb Web. In Stage One, the place of play outdoors in ‘a good childhood’ is elaborated in terms of a ‘healthy childhood’; a ‘natural childhood’ and a ‘safe childhood’. Stage Two considers the potentials of a relational, interdependent and ecological vision of outdoor play. This foregrounds the mutual reciprocity between children and their environment in terms of the affordance relationship (Gibson, 1979) and in doing so, highlights the particular features of the outdoor environment that make it engaging and interesting for children and supportive or their learning and development. This stage also envisions the outdoors as an arena supportive of both adults and children’s well-being in company and interaction with each other. Stage Three of the Orb Web incorporates six themes of analysis of children’s time and space capturing the complex processes that are embedded in both the construction and experience of outdoor play for children in ece settings. These are: change in development over time; day-to-dayness or everyday life; institutional time and space; generation and historical time; seasonal time and social background contextual factors. The Orb Web is completed by considering outdoor experiences in terms of the perceived and utilised affordances at three extending spheres of experience and action: indoor-outdoor connectedness; boundaried area of the outdoor space of the ece setting and the wider outdoors. The study identified a gap between an ideology of a good childhood outdoors and its enactment in pedagogical practices in early childhood education in Ireland. A shared understanding amongst key adult stakeholders regarding the outdoors as valued, necessary and consequently a ‘designed and planned for’ component of children’s experience appeared absent in provision. Outdoor play was demonstrated to be frequently marginalised or problematised by adults resulting in an invisibility of young children in city spaces. Structural conditions identified which mitigate against the actualisation of positive experiences outdoors included: the persistent influence of an historical educational tradition that has prioritised indoor teaching of ‘the basics’ over learning and development outdoors; a tension between children’s need for exploration, challenge and risk and regulatory and institutional requirements and a pervasive litigation culture; a lack of awareness of, and attention to building design that permit transparency between indoors and outdoors, a lack of awareness of the physical and social features of outdoor spaces which are both significant for children’s well-being, learning and development and prioritised as important to children; limitations on children’s capacity to exercise choice and achieve a personal balance between indoors and outdoors; negative perceptions of Irish weather; the dominance of car traffic over the needs of the playing child; and the erosion of natural garden spaces. The findings relating to children’s priorities in early childhood education settings suggest that it is important to children that they have time and space outdoors: to move expansively and freely; to practise newly acquired physical skills; to transport themselves or materials using vehicles and tools; to be high up; to be able to find and construct small spaces; to explore and transform natural elements; to observe, to have direct contact with animal and plant life, and play with friends. A further important component is the presence of a supportive, familiar and responsible adult who is willing to engage in playful interaction with children, to collaborate and share interest in discoveries and learning. The ecological vision of outdoor experience proposed in this study offers a new perspective on the role of the outdoors in everyday life in early childhood education in urban settings in Ireland, and a number of recommendations are made to guide future national developments in policy, practice and training.
early childhood education
time and space