Opportunities and limitations of the extended outdoor kindergarten environment
By Ove Bergersen (12.09.2023)
The physical outdoor environment sets some limitations and provides some opportunities for children’s play and exploration. However, how an outdoor environment is used also depends on the imagination of children and kindergarten staff. This text reflects on how kindergartens can establish a pedagogical use of outdoor areas and which factors it may be important to take into account.
The concept of affordance directs our attention to the characteristics of the physical environment and the opportunities and limitations inherent in it (Gibson, 1979). However, affordance must not be understood as a fixed concept that is perceived or realised in the same way by all individuals or groups. Social and cultural factors play a role and influence how opportunities and limitations of the physical environment are perceived, utilised and shaped by individuals and groups (Reed, 1993). Many researchers distinguish between potential and actualised affordances (see also text 2 ‘Kindergarten’s scope of opportunity’). This means that kindergarten teachers have a lot of leeway when it comes to how the extended outdoor environment should be used. By listening to children and trying to understand children, the use of the physical outdoor environment can be facilitated and varied in ways that promote children’s development. Here, developing good routines in kindergartens will play an important role.
The physical outdoor environment outside the kindergarten’s own area may be less adapted for children than the physical environment in the kindergarten’s own area. This can involve both positive and negative aspects. Positively speaking, a lesser degree of adult facilitation can enable children to explore, discover and define an environment to a greater extent, and to decide for themselves what objects are to be used for in play. For example, we can think of children wandering in an area of forest and deciding for themselves when they want to stop and explore something because their imagination has been excited by something in the physical environment. Here, the child’s free exploration aligns with what an adult might consider safe for children to explore on their own (cf. Kyttä, 2004). However, the lower degree of pedagogical adaptation in the environment outside kindergarten may also have negative aspects. Traffic and other potentially dangerous environments for children may require the adult to narrow down the area where children are allowed to move freely and regulate children’s movement patterns in certain ways. In this case, the limitations of the physical environment will dominate. Such limitations may apply and become defining also within a framework of otherwise free exploration. For example, if the group of children comes to a lake on their trip, some of the children may want to try to test the physical limit of how far into the water they can walk without getting wet. Or, it is conceivable that they will test the limits the kindergarten staff have when it comes to how far out they allow the children to go. In other words, what should be perceived as limiting and what should be perceived as an opportunity in a given physical environment will be subject to negotiation between children and kindergarten employees. On a more general level, such a negotiation of limitations and opportunities could in itself be a pedagogical opportunity to hold children accountable or work with other pedagogical goals. Although the physical environment is dominated by limitations, it is nevertheless important that we see the pedagogical opportunities this environment offers in terms of giving children important experiences.
The many pedagogical opportunities that the physical environment offers us mean that a good way to approach the use of the extended outdoor environment is to keep an activity diary (cf. Kyttä, 1997). In such a diary, one can record good routines one wants to continue, but not least: what the children do in different places and on the way to these places. Such a diary could be designed in different ways. I would suggest recording both physical-bodily aspects, social-play-based aspects and limiting-regulating aspects of the environment.
When it comes to the physical aspects of children’s use of the body, one can first register the places where children crawl, run, walk, climb or sit and stop. Depending on the children’s physical abilities, different landscape formations and environments may give children challenges they may find inspiring. As the teachers in Sande kindergarten point out in videos 1 and 2 in ‘The extended outdoor kindergarten environment’, walking across a lawn or down a small hill can in itself be demanding enough for one-year-olds. Researchers have pointed out that the opportunities a physical environment gives children develop in step with the child’s physical development (Storli & Hagen, 2010). This means that there will be great variation within the group of children with regard to what is perceived as challenging enough and what is perceived as too demanding. As the teachers in Sande kindergarten point out, conversations with the entire group of children before they encounter an obstacle in the landscape can be a golden educational opportunity to create a sense of belonging in the group of children.
Secondly, one should also note which objects or formations in the landscape children are interested in using in play and what kind of significance they acquire in play. This type of registration may, for example, involve how children use sticks and branches, hollows or different types of vegetation and formations in the landscape when playing. With regard to the responsibility we have for the entire group of children in kindergartens, it will also be relevant to note which children play together and patterns of initiative and response in the play so that a basis is obtained for assessing all children’s opportunities for balanced development (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017). Kindergarten staff must be able to assess how children can be supported in a way that helps them develop in the group of children and gives them a sense of mastery.
Thirdly, I think it is also beneficial to record the prohibited places or the discouraged activities that children encounter in the extended outdoor environment. This last type of registration may form the basis for discussions related to how these places or activities can nevertheless be utilised pedagogically or how to implement measures that can make the places or activities more accessible to children (Fjørtoft, 2012).
These types of diaries and registrations may raise awareness and lead to positive synergies being created between the groups of children and between different departments. It is in interaction with children that we discover how the landscape and physical environment can be used. The Framework Plan for Kindergartens requires that we facilitate so that all children experience progression and varied opportunities for holistic development (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017). In our time when most children attend kindergarten, we can also argue that kindergartens have a responsibility to facilitate the transfer of play practices between different groups of children. While children of different ages previously met and played together in the street, today it is kindergarten as an institution that can function as an important link between children in different year groups and of different ages (cf. Flatekval, 2016). It can therefore be beneficial to involve children in the design of the aforementioned activity diaries, or to create child-friendly versions so that new groups of children can browse through them and be inspired by previous groups’ play practices in the local environment.
Something that can help us understand children’s use of the extended outdoor area is the concept of interspace (cf. the interview with the teachers at Sande kindergarten). According to Nordtømme (2016), interspace is the space that emerges when children are playing together (p. iv). Such interspaces are not always marked with physical objects, but can be created through things such as posture and gaze. Generally speaking, Nordtømme argues that interspace is a phenomenon that occurs when children share play experiences and engagement (Nordtømme, 2016, p. 153). It is a transparent space where others outside the game can be invited in or the participants in the game can step out. Nordtømme calls interspace created by play and communal action virtual, while concrete interspace can be created from concrete objects. In the outdoor environment, concrete interspace can be created from different types of loose material such as branches that can become a partially closed cabin, a lavvu or a secret room. The kindergarten employee and the children may be able to see each other through openings in the cabin, the employee may be invited into a give-and-take game, or one can imagine that the children and the employee plan and carry out a role play together in connection with this partly closed, partly open space.
These considerations related to interspace created by children illustrate that the meanings a physical landscape acquires for children and adults are shaped by an interplay between inherent and environmental factors. Therefore, assessments of the limitations and opportunities of the physical environment must be weighed against assessments of what children need at any given time. It will then be important to get to know the children in the group well, and it is most likely that one will soon discover that children are different and have different needs. Much of the pedagogical adaptation of the extended outdoor area will therefore consist of finding areas where children can establish arenas for joint exploration and play, despite the fact that there are also individual needs and differences between children. Reflections on where and how such common arenas can be established can therefore be described as being a crucial first step in establishing good pedagogical use of the outdoor environments around kindergartens.
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