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Taking kindergartners outdoors: Documenting their explorations and assessing the impact on their ecological awareness

Summary


Nature kindergarten nurtures a deep connection with nature

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of a nature kindergarten program at a school in British Columbia. Building upon a relatively substantial history of nature kindergartens in Scandinavia and Germany, a set of guiding principles was created for this program: connecting deeply with nature through play; local ways of knowing and understanding; physical and mental health; learning collaboratively as part of an empathetic community; and the environment as a co-teacher.

The process of developing the program was substantially documented using methods such as observation, interviews, photographs, and children’s drawings. This resulted in a robust data set that provided important insights into the evaluation of the program.  An understanding of the effects of nature kindergarten participation was sought in regards to several aspects of children’s functioning, “including their activity level, motor coordination, attentional regulation, social skills, well-being, nature relatedness and environmentally responsible behavior.”

Beginning in September 2012, the nature kindergarten had a class of 21 students that spent two and a half hours out in nearby natural areas each school day, regardless of the weather.  A game-like assessment adapted from previous research with elementary school children was used to measure children’s nature relatedness and their environmental behaviors. The responses of the nature kindergarten students were compared to a control group of 22 children attending two elementary schools in the same community. Both sets of children were assessed at the beginning and end of the school year.

Analysis of the assessment suggests that children in the nature kindergarten were more closely related to nature than children in the regular kindergarten, with the nature-relatedness scores of the children in the nature kindergarten increasing slightly over the year while the scores of the control group declined slightly over the year. No significant differences in environmentally responsible behaviors were identified between the two groups of children.

The researchers suggested that possible explanations for this result, which they deemed to be surprising, were ceiling effects in the measurement approach and the potentially longer timespan needed to show changes in behavior. The observations gathered by the researchers during the pilot year of the program provide rich insight into what is possible in this type of setting. These observations suggest that nature kindergartens foster a community of learners; promote children’s social skills, as seen in the way the children offered to support one another’s efforts; help children discover their own ideas, strengths and confidence; and nurture a deep connection to the environment, as demonstrated by the caring and concern shown by the children. The researchers emphasize that this study is supportive of the idea that “education within nature is particularly important in early childhood because direct experience with various environments facilitates the development of positive feelings and attitudes towards nature and natural phenomena.”

 

Citation

Elliot, E., Ten Eycke, K., Chan, S., Müller, U., (2014). Taking kindergartners outdoors: Documenting their explorations and assessing the impact on their ecological awareness. Children, Youth and Environments, 24(2), 102-122.

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