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Does a nurturing approach that uses an outdoor play environment build resilience in children from a challenging background?

Summary


Children from challenging backgrounds experience improved well-being and resilience after participating in nurturing outdoor program

Resilience is the ability to maintain appropriate functioning despite significant emotional adversity. The current study focuses on development of attributes of resilience among young children from unsupportive and challenging home environments. Literature on wilderness therapy and nature experiences provide evidence in support of psychological benefits and positive effects among youth and teens, but research is lacking in the area of the development of resilience in young children in outdoor play environments. This qualitative study offers an ethnographic approach to research about the effects of a program called Nature Nurture at Camphill School in Aberdeen, Scotland on the development of resilience in children.

One central aim of the Nature Nurture program is the development of resilience, and program activities are carried out with emphasis on nurture, nature, and free play. The program consisted of sessions one afternoon per week for ten weeks, and staff-to-child ratios averaged two to one. Program activities include: walk to woods, collection of “treasures,” play in the woods among a variety of stations designed to promote physical activity and exploration, and creation of a craft. Seventy children participated in the program; the current study involves data from one ten-week session during which ten children from challenging backgrounds participated. Participants (four females and six males, aged four and five years old) were recruited from a school in a disadvantaged area of the city.

Parents (or teachers if parents were unwilling or unable to do so) completed questionnaires at baseline and program completion about children’s physical, emotional, behavioral, and social skills. A researcher from the partnering university conducted observations at the first program session and two other subsequent sessions. The researcher adopted a participant observer role and took field notes that were later written in narrative form. Camphill staff completed student-specific observation sheets after each session that incorporated student perspectives. A focus group with Camphill staff was also conducted to explore their motivations and impressions of resilience development in participants. In addition, the researcher kept a reflexive diary to allow checks for bias and facilitate data analysis. All qualitative data were analyzed using the PERIK model, designed for use in observing and assessing child well-being in early childhood centers and focused on positive development markers.

The authors do not formally present the results of the baseline and follow-up questionnaires for all participants, although they suggest they were used in the write-up of case studies. Case studies of three of the ten children who participated in the program are presented. The authors indicate they chose these three because they felt they were representative of the typical participant. The case studies describe how each of these three children developed a number of positive emotional development markers in the course of their ten-week experience in the program, including confidence in the face of new challenges, self-control, empathy, motivation, focus, and perseverance. Researchers found all dimensions of well-being from the PERIK model were enhanced through the combination of the nurturing approach and natural environment. The natural environment provided children with new challenges and safe risks to take, and contributed to increased calm and relaxation. The nurturing approach was important in helping children feel safe and secure, providing social support, promoting self-esteem, and developing persistence and concentration. The authors conclude the Camphill program does in fact contribute to increased resilience in children from disadvantaged backgrounds through the development of various dimensions of well-being.

This study, although small and limited to one program in Scotland, displays the potential for outdoor programs to contribute to positive changes related to resilience in young children. The authors used strong qualitative techniques to analyze effects of the program on participants. They assert that both nature and nurture components were vital to positive changes, but further research should more closely examine this. The authors acknowledge ten weeks may not be a long enough time for certain children from challenging environments to experience positive benefits, and they do not note if any children experienced negative or no effects. Further research should explore changes in children observed outside of the program context and after program completion.

Citation

McArdle, K., Harrison, T., Harrison, D., (2013). Does a nurturing approach that uses an outdoor play environment build resilience in children from a challenging background?. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13(3), 238-254.

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