The kindergarten’s scope of opportunity

By Anne Kristine Solberg Runestad (12.09.2023)  

In what for many would have seemed impossible, designer Ketil Dybvig in collaboration with kindergarten teachers Jorunn Bøe and Ragnhild Eielsen Wiig has found opportunities that have left their mark on Byfjordparken kindergarten’s outdoor environment. When you enter the area, however, you are in no doubt about for whom and for what the outdoor environment is intended. Here you will find strongly coded resources such as swings, sand pits, buckets and shovels, but you will also find resources where the use and meaning are fairly open. In the videos in this part of ECTE – DigiTools, designer Ketil Dybvig talks about the challenges of creating an outdoor environment on a roof in an urban space and about the resources he thinks an outdoor environment should offer children. He talks about materials that can “become anything” in a child’s imagination, and he also claims that “it is better to have a thousand things that cost a hundred and fifty kroner each than one thing that costs a hundred and fifty thousand kroner”. In this text, the outdoor environment’s opportunities and limitations (affordance) and the ‘third teacher’ are thematised and discussed.

Psychologist and professor James J. Gibson can be said to be one of the most important contributors with regard to visual perception; i.e. understanding how individuals perceive, use and create meaning with the physical environment (see also text 3). This theory is currently the basis for understandings of human behaviour in encounters with the physical environment in several disciplines, and it has been applied and developed further in social semiotics (Runestad, 2015, p. 35) and in connection with research on the importance of the physical environment for kindergarten children (Kyttä, 2004; Storli & Hagen, 2010).

In her studies on children and the physical environment, Marketta Kyttä used two types of affordance. While the potential affordances can be said to be infinite, as they depend on the individual and situation, the actualised affordances will be those that are most relevant to assess and analyse, as they will be expressed in the interaction between children and the environment (Kyttä, 2004, p. 181; Storli & Hagen, 2010, p. 448). The affordances that are perceived, used and possibly created depend not only on the individual and the environment, but also on the social and cultural codes that characterise the situation in which they find themselves (Kyttä, 2004, p. 181). With regard to kindergarten children, the environment’s affordances will depend on both the social and cultural codes of the kindergarten, the extent to which the children have acquired these, and the other experiences they bring with them into their interaction with the environment.

In reception and literature studies, the terms empty spaces (Iser, 1974, 1978) and open and closed texts (Eco, 1979) are used. A text cannot say everything, but leaves it up to the reader to create supplementary meaning, often in connection with obvious aspects related to cultural codes. The more empty spaces there are, the more open the text becomes (Runestad, 2015, p. 67). An open text leaves the meaning-making to the reader to a greater extent than a closed one. Think about the opportunities offered by the windows in the fence on top of the roof of Byfjordparken kindergarten when it comes to wonder, good conversations and inspiration for play. There, children and adults can view the outside world from their vantage point, look at life below, at boats coming and going. What are they carrying? Where are they going? The concepts of open texts and empty spaces can be seen in the context of coded and uncoded spaces and materials. A tricycle, for example, is highly coded, while a stick is hardly coded at all. However, both can be used as a ‘means of transportation’ for a child using just a little imagination. A stick can become absolutely anything.

The empty spaces can also be said to be in the dissonance between the cultural codes of the text or object and the competence of the child. Jofrid Karner Smidt actually argues that such empty spaces are in the reader’s head (Smidt, 1999, p. 71). For example, a child from Tunisia, who has not experienced winter in Norway, is unlikely to immediately understand what a toboggan is or what it should be used for. In connection with children’s meaning-making and interaction with their physical surroundings, however, I retain the idea that the empty spaces are between the ‘reader’ and the ‘text’, otherwise the concept of meaning-making would lapse and children’s creative approach to acquiring society’s cultural codes would be rejected. New and creative ways of using and combining resources for meaning-making would also have been perceived as being wrong (cf. text 1, ‘Meaning-making in the interaction between children and space’). Thus, children’s creativity and innovation would not have been valued either.

Uncoded materials can become anything, and coded materials can be used and combined in new ways. In this space between the child and the physical environment lies the kindergarten’s scope of opportunity (cf. Birkeland, 2012, p. 59). “It is the children themselves who define play, and not the playground equipment,” says Dybvig in the video ‘The outdoor environment’s composition and dynamics’. He also points out the importance of children having access to resources that allow them to “create their space within the space” – creating their places (cf. Hansson, 2012, p. 156; Krogstad, 2012, p. 83; Strong-Wilson &; Ellis, 2007, p. 43).

With regard to Dybvig’s statement that “it is better to have a thousand things that cost a hundred and fifty kroner each than one thing that costs a hundred and fifty thousand kroner”, it may, under certain circumstances, contribute to children of all age groups and with different interests getting varied play, activity and learning opportunities (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 44). Through great variation, all children get the opportunity to find something in the kindergarten’s outdoor environment that engages them. They can combine and use different resources for meaning-making in new ways to fit into the topic of the play. And, the lower the degree of coding, the more opportunities these resources have to represent what the children themselves want and demand. On the other hand, many objects and resources can lead to high complexity, which in turn can induce stress rather than creative meaning-making if one does not maintain some sense of coherence (cf. Laike, 2002, p. 46; Thorbergsen, 2007). A well-organised space safeguards coherence, variety, readability and opportunities for transformation (cf. Evenstad & Brennhovd, 2020, p. 64, cited in Granholt, 2021, pp. 65-66).

Byfjordparken kindergarten has organised the outdoor environment into different activity zones. As a result, the different zones invite different types of activity and meaning-making, while at the same time safeguarding a certain order and coherence. However, the zones are not defined by physical barriers, but with markers that serve as guiding resources. The children are therefore free to choose how they want to relate to them, and this often results in them being included as resources in accordance with the intentions of the play and the activities. In other words, they leave room for the children’s own interpretation and meaning-making in the situation.

Variation is also created through natural phenomena such as varying weather and changing seasons, and nature’s own resources for meaning-making such as water, snow, falling leaves, etc., will characterise the kindergarten’s outdoor environment and create various opportunities for meaning-making. In addition, children grow up and use resources in age-appropriate ways. However, through a study of children’s activity in different environments, Storli and Hagen found signs that the oldest kindergarten children could become less active and show signs of boredom in outdoor kindergarten environments. They suggest that this may have to do with the fact that they have been in kindergarten for a long time and played in the same environment with the same resources for meaning-making for several years (Storli &; Hagen, 2010). They probably needed new challenges.

Granholt focuses on renewal as being key to variation in kindergarten environments (Granholt, 2021, p. 75). In this context, it is debatable whether all of the kindergarten’s “one thousand five hundred things” should be available to the children at all times. All of the resources for meaning-making do not need to be present at the same time. Organising them in new ways can also be advantageous. The Framework Plan for Kindergartens states that “staff must ensure progression through deliberate use of materials, books, toys, tools and equipment, and make these available to children” (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 44). The older children have different needs than the younger ones, and progression can be safeguarded and counteract boredom by, for example, leaving some resources reserved for the oldest children towards the end of their time in kindergarten.

Another finding made by Storli and Hagen may seem discouraging in relation to the intended message in this article; that passive children were passive, while active children were active, regardless of whether they were in the kindergarten’s outdoor environment or its extended outdoor environment (Storli & Hagen, 2010). As a result, one might conclude that it doesn’t really matter how one organises the kindergarten’s outdoor environment and that the third teacher therefore plays an insignificant role. However, there are enough studies that point to the opposite (e.g. Evenstad & Brennhovd, 2020, cited in Granholt, 2021, p. 65), that there are better playing conditions in a play environment adapted in a way that is inspiring, engaging and exciting (cf. Granholt, 2021, p. 69), and in many ways we can say that Storli and Hagen compare ‘apples and bananas’. Their study is nevertheless interesting, as it says something about children being different and having different needs regardless of where they are. They also refer to studies where the results contradict their findings (e.g. Fjørtoft, 2000, cited in Storli & Hagen, 2010, p. 447), but for me, their findings call into question the third teacher as an ‘actor’, as Inger Birkeland claims is the common perception today (Birkeland, 2012, p. 54). Such an understanding rests on Latour’s actor-network mindset in which all participants, or ‘bodies’, are seen as equal actors, including the environment, because they can activate action (Becher & Evenstad, 2018, p. 182). However, a man-made space is simply what the other actors have made it. Although ‘the third teacher’ is part of a three-way interaction between child, environment and teacher, it is actually the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the kindergarten’s environment balances between what is safe and what is challenging, and contributes to children’s exploration, enjoyment and learning.  

The Reggio Emilia Institutet in Sweden explains on its website that the third teacher term arose due to the fact that they already had two teachers in kindergarten (Reggio Emilia Institutet, 2023). As the term has spread, it has been understood that the three teachers are the educator, the child, and the physical environment. Central to this understanding is how children perceive and use the environment to create meaning (cf. Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007, p. 40). I understand Strong-Willis and Ellis to mean that they do not see the environment as an actor in the sense of an independent acting entity, but as a performance and a tool for teachers in both kindergarten and school (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007, p. 45). Yes, the environment will somehow activate action (cf. Becher &; Evenstad, 2018), but the kind of actions activated in a kindergarten is of importance. Kindergarten teachers with their educational and experiential backgrounds have a particular responsibility for ensuring that kindergartens “organise space, time and play equipment to inspire different kinds of play” Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 20) and to help introduce children to “new situations, topics, phenomena, materials and tools that promote meaningful interaction” (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 22).

In the book The kindergarten teacher as inspirer, Marit Ranum Granholt writes specifically about the kindergarten teacher as an “inspirer for space and surroundings” (Granholt, 2021, p. 63, our translation), and she claims that creating a good kindergarten environment is about creating a good childhood (Granholt, 2021, p. 64). She asks a number of rhetorical questions that reflect the kindergarten’s content and tasks, and she also makes a specific recommendation to “question the habitual” (Granholt, 2021, p. 81, our translation). Start with “What do we have?” and “What do we want to achieve?” Routines create a sense of security and must be seen in the context of the environment (cf. Ministry of Education and Research, 2017, p. 33), but they can also inhibit how the physical environment is used. Is it possible to prioritise in a different way? Creating a scope of opportunity in kindergartens is about recognising children’s activities and acknowledging that they are the most central actors in their own formation and learning processes. Therefore, it is also about seeing things from the children’s perspective, being aware of the third teacher’s importance for children’s meaning-making and, through interaction with children and the environment, adopting a dynamic approach to the development of the kindergarten’s physical environment that facilitates the scopes of opportunity.


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