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Bringing the outdoors into early childhood education

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...familiarising children with plants and animals, landscapes, seasons and weather...an objective is to develop children's love of nature, an understanding of the interplay of nature and between [hu]man and nature....Nature accommodates a multitude of experiences and activities in all seasons and all weathers.
-OECD Norway country note, 1999

The outdoor environment has an abundance of development and learning potential for children. Despite this, there has been a lasting perception that the sole function of outdoor spaces is for children to ‘burn off steam'. This assumption is derived from the "surplus energy theory" espoused by Herbert Spencer almost 150 years ago in his book Principals of Psychology. In his theory, Spencer explains that the main function of children's play is to get rid of surplus energy. Although this has been rejected by many, it still has a lasting influence on the design of children's outdoor spaces. For example, this design concept can be seen with the design of playgrounds that consist mostly of manufactured play equipment and make limited or no use of any natural elements (White, 2004).

Recently, there has been growth of the idea that the outdoor environment can be more than a place to burn off steam, with more educators and architects and designers embracing the ideas that outdoor play space provides chances for the highest level of development and learning. When used best, it can be a place for investigation, exploration and social interaction (Weaver, 2000).

In early childhood programs that emphasize the outdoors there is no such thing as bad weather; rain and snow are seen as natural parts of the child's environment. Forests or other natural parts of the environment can be the classroom, a natural way for children to discover the world around them. Spending time in the outdoors helps children identify with nature, boosts physical and mental health, and helps children gain self-confidence and respect for the world around them.

In several countries in Europe it has become popular for young children to spend considerable time outdoors in the natural environment. Pedagogies of ‘forest' daycare centres and kindergartens, eco-early childhood education and core components of child and nature interactions in curriculum have become common in a number of countries, most notably in Norway and Sweden. As described in the OECD's Norway Country Note:

...the ‘Norwegian child' should live an active and outdoor childhood. Strong emphasis is placed on the relationship between young children and their wider environment, in particular the outdoor environment and more generally, with nature. Apart from being fun and healthy, being outside throughout the year is about learning to live in and with strongly demarcated seasons and extreme weather conditions... In short, being active and outdoors is both an issue of health and an issue of value, or identity.
- OECD, 1999

It has been noted that Canadian early childhood education and care programs have not tended to emphasize the opportunities offered by the outdoors. For example, a number of provinces do not require contiguous outdoor space as part of a regulated child care facility, so even getting children outdoors on a regular basis may be difficult for child care staff (see Beach and Friendly, 2005 for Canadian requirements for child care physical environments). In its review of Canada's early childhood education and care (ECEC) situation, the OECD commented that "Where outdoor space is concerned, the quality of the yards attached to centres is often poor in Canada, a country with much land space available". Quality by Design, a project of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, identified the physical environment as one of eight elements of a system of early childhood education and care that should be considered.

This ISSUE file has been compiled to inspire policy makers and early educators to consider or revisit the possibilities that outdoor play spaces can offer for young children and to reflect on the multitude of learning opportunities nature provides, the design of outdoor spaces and the importance of outdoor play in early childhood curriculum.

Resource materials included in this ISSUE file:

Materials available online
- Theoretical perspectives
- Resources and recommendations to inform practice

Print resources
- Books and reports
- Periodical articles

Useful links
- All materials are organized chronologically, from most to least recent.

Videos and multimedia
- Useful videos and photo galleries exhibiting a range of outdoor spaces for young children.

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