Great outdoors: primary school children miss out

Children playing outdoors
We found that children in outdoor spaces seem to have more time to talk themselves and this gave them more freedom to negotiate ways of being with others and to direct and extend their learning. The social skills and motivation for learning developed in these contexts are foundational for learning.
Dr Sue Waite
According to the findings of a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), children are missing out on the opportunities for learning and play afforded by time spent outdoors as they move into the more formal educational setting of primary school. The study, which involved researchers from Plymouth University, the University of St Mark and St John and the Institute of Education, London, found that the transition from early years education to primary school was accompanied by a sharp reduction in time spent outside.

Despite the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework’s endorsement of outdoor play as an important component of children’s educational development and wellbeing, the research highlighted the fact that much less time is devoted to less-supervised, informal periods of outdoor play in Year One than during EYFS. There is a concern that this decline will become even more pronounced with the new EYFS framework’s emphasis on ‘school readiness’ and the focus of schools on attainment and testing. 

Dr Sue Waite, from Plymouth University’s School of Education, led the project. She was able to field ScienceOmega.com’s questions on the methodology she and her co-authors used as well as the relative benefits to young children of regularly spending time outdoors. The transition between early years education and primary school is of particular interest as a consequence of the stress placed on school readiness. Educational systems such as Finland’s, Dr Waite pointed out, that rank highly in terms of standards, do not begin formal education earlier than we do in the United Kingdom.

"While there are pressures to increase school readiness and educational standards, people hold mixed views on how this can best be achieved," she began. "The key thing about this transition period is the quite significant shift in the way that children are expected to learn, from play-based, child-initiated, discovery forms of learning to more prescribed, teacher-led learning. There are developmental issues around not all children being ready to adopt this form of learning, and there are also significant benefits from children maintaining ownership of their learning so that they remain independent learners throughout their lifetime."

The researchers equipped children with digital recording devices, which they carried in brightly-coloured pouches. Although a total of 240 children in eight classes – four Foundation Stage (FS) and four Year One – were involved in the study, the focus was on four children from each class. Those 16 children who were in FS during the first data collection period were followed into primary education, and 192 audio recordings were made overall.

The team analysed the recordings in two ways, beginning with a detailed analysis of a selection of the recordings of the target children of different gender and levels of ability in the two schools. Secondly, they assembled an overview of all recordings categorising where conversations took place, who was involved and the broad thematic content.

"We considered the nature of the conversation and the affordances it offered for children’s learning," related Dr Waite. "The audio data was also contextualised by observation, photographs and videos, and teacher interviews. We therefore gained information about what was intended and what was enacted in outdoor spaces.

"Use of the mobile audio recording method enabled us to ‘listen in’ on children’s learning without disrupting the flow. If the researchers were close enough to have followed a conversation, it might have affected what the children said."

In terms of the arguments in favour of more time indoors, Dr Waite conceded that some learning may be best achieved in the classroom – some abstract ideas may be more easily conveyed through ‘chalk and talk’ techniques, and the act of writing, for example, is easier at a desk.

"If school readiness is emphasised, being in the classroom may help some children to learn better how to ‘do school’ by practising the conventions of the classroom, such as sitting and listening to the teacher," she continued.

"However, school readiness does not happen at the same time for all; some children need an extended period of play-based learning, which is more frequent and sustained in outdoor contexts. Furthermore, children learn different things from being inside and outside the classroom. We found that children in outdoor spaces seem to have more time to talk themselves and this gave them more freedom to negotiate ways of being with others and to direct and extend their learning. The social skills and motivation for learning developed in these contexts are foundational for learning."

In spite of the opportunities offered by outdoor time for independent and experiential learning, analysis of the data collected showed that, while two thirds of recordings in EYFS were made outside, the same was true for only a third of recordings in Year One.  According to Dr Waite, any distinctions drawn between outdoor play and learning are somewhat artificial. Learning, however, is often defined as ‘work’ and not a matter of choice for the child. 

"There are some differences between the way they are viewed by Foundation Stage (FS) and other staff," Dr Waite noted. "Adults in Year One tended to regard their role as more central to learning than play, while FS staff saw play as learning. One headteacher described the move from Foundation Stage to primary curriculum as from a meadow to a rock, which is quite a powerful metaphor for the way in which he saw children learning in these two phases.

"Not all learning outdoors is play-based nor does it necessarily need to be. However, rather than simply exporting classroom practice outside, using different ways to support learning that capitalise on the experiential aspects of being outdoors and children’s interests is more effective."

Being clear and realistic about the nature of opportunities for learning in an outdoor setting is important in planning for outdoor learning, Dr Waite stressed. Teachers can also be encouraged and supported to develop their confidence in using pedagogies that will maximise these opportunities.

"Characteristics of effective learning such as engagement, motivation, and thinking critically and creatively are all well-supported by outdoor contexts which stimulate children to learn through playing and exploring, actively learning, and self-regulating their learning," Dr Waite commented. "These qualities are just as important at every stage of education; indeed, they are key graduate skills!"

Plymouth University was recently awarded funding through Natural England for a major demonstration project – Natural Connections. Led by Dr Waite, the project will involve working with 200 primary, secondary and special schools in areas of high multiple deprivation in southwest England. It is aimed at developing their use of local natural environments to enhance learning right across the curriculum, and will include the development of a web service to support teachers in optimisation of learning in natural environments on a national level.

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