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Child-initiated learning, the outdoor environment and the underachieving child


The outdoor environment is a promising context for change for teachers and their students labeled as under-achieving

The main purpose of this study was to find out whether child-initiated learning outdoors influenced children who were perceived by their teachers to be ‘under-achieving’ and if so, the degree, character and possible explanations for this impact. A second aim of this was to understand teachers’ ideas about ‘underachievement’.

This study took place in the United Kingdom and involved 48 children, age 4-7 years (half boys, half girls), designated by their teachers as “under-achieving” socially, emotionally or academically, in the normal classroom environment.  It also involved these children’s eight teachers in eight schools working within the Foundation Phase framework (which emphasizes the importance of play, child-initiated learning and use of the outdoor environment but which takes a traditional linear developmental approach and tends to label children not adhering to linear development expectations as under-achieving). The authors used an action research approach in working with participating teachers. Teachers chose student participants, received training in and then implemented child-led learning in the outdoors, collected observational data on children, interpreted data and developed case study reports. Data for the study was also provided through teacher interviews conducted by the authors and field notes.

The outdoor environments offered through the participating schools consisted of areas such as grassy spaces, playing fields, vegetable gardens, a pond, and/or common land.  Some also included play equipment. The researchers promoted the use of the most naturalistic environment possible for the implementation of the intervention; however, the different sites had different levels of urbanization and thus different levels of natural environment available.

Findings suggest that the more natural outdoor spaces in which child-led activities took place appeared to enhance the impact of child-initiated learning and diminish teachers’ perception of children as “underachieving”. Overall, children participating in the outdoor child-led learning appeared to come into their own and were able to reconstruct themselves as strong, competent children rather than as ‘underachieving’ students. In 28 of the 48 case studies produced by the teachers, behaviors such as self-control, concentration, social interaction, perseverance, conflict management and self-confidence were observed to improve after the initiation of child-led learning outdoors. In other words, their perceived underachievement diminished or disappeared. In some cases, this effect might be explained by the fact that in the outdoor environment, some behaviors or characteristics were not seen as problematic as they would be indoors (boisterous behavior). The behaviors may not have changed, but the context in which they occurred led to different interpretations of the behaviors.  Therefore, some teachers were able to see “underachievement” as a product of contexts, and child behaviors and performance as not solely inherent to the individual. They recognized the impact of outdoor environments and child-led learning on positive changes in behavior and performance. Some even recognized their own contribution (expectations, teacher behaviors) to the difficulties they observed in their students as well as the positive changes observed in outdoor, child-led learning. This led to changes in teachers’ understanding of “underachievement” as a construct. The authors discuss the findings in the context of the meaning of “places” and “spaces” as imbued with emotional meaning.



Maynard, T., Waters, J., Clement, C., (2013). Child-initiated learning, the outdoor environment and the underachieving child. Early Years, 33(3), 212 - 225.


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