Engaging together in nature

In what ways do families and the Early Learning and Childcare educators provide nature experiences with and for children?

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

A study which looks at how early learning and childcare educators provide nature experiences and how families can get involved to engage in nature with their child.

Introduction

The project aim was to look at how the educators in the setting provide nature experiences with and for children. This takes a look at the nursery garden and staff training for outdoor learning. The second aim of the project was to involve families and encourage them to engage in nature together with their child. Nature was important to Froebel, he believed children should learn in nature rather than about nature.

Context

Before the project started my setting had identified a gap in nature experiences. We are fortunate to have a very large garden space however it was not always utilized to its full potential. My colleague and I signed up to an ongoing nature course in Falkirk called ‘the hub sessions’ to further our knowledge and gain new skills for outdoors allowing us to redevelop our garden to support nature experiences. As I looked at how the educators in the setting provided nature experiences it highlighted another barrier of how many children accessed outdoors and nature.

Before the project started there was a high number of children who wouldn’t access outdoors with one reason being their parents didn’t want them to go outside due to it being ‘too cold’. We were also aware that a majority of the children didn’t have outdoor access at home due to living in a flat.

I’m an early years educator in my setting with outdoors as my leadership role. This may make my project question biased as it helps me develop in my own leadership role however nature pedagogy is having an influential impact on early years therefore, I believe the project is beneficial for all educators, children and families in the setting.

The first methodology used for the project was a questionnaire sent to parents/families to gather information on their knowledge and understanding of children engaging in nature. They were also asked how often they engage in nature together and how confident they are in doing so.

The second methodology used was observational studies on a core group of children and their families who were taking part in nature sessions with myself and another early years educator from the setting. This started with families coming into the setting to join their child in a ‘nature stay and play’ session in the nursery garden then an observational nature session at our local landmark ‘The Helix’.

I chose an observational study to track the level of involvement and family engagement from each session. Observations allowed me to reflect and plan steps for the next session.

Ethics

I asked for consent from the head teacher at the school to conduct my research within the setting. I explained the aims of the project and what I planned to do to ensure confidentiality of the children in the setting.

Next I asked for permission from parents/families to take part in all questionnaires and observational studies included in my research. I stated my steps to ensure they remained anonymous in my pictures. Throughout the project I only took pictures from behind to ensure they could not be identified. The last ethical issue I had to consider was permission from the children involved. As it is a child’s right to participate, I verbally asked the core group of children if they would like to participate each time I was observing. The parents/families were also asked to sign a consent form on behalf of their child for them to be a part of my research.

Due to the research I was carrying out I didn’t have any other ethical issues I had to consider.

“Children and adults should go out together, and together strive to feel in their hearts the spirit and life of nature”.

Froebel Trust and Early Education (2022) Re-engaging With Nature. Available at: https://www.froebel.org.uk/uploads/documents/FT_Re-engaging-With-Nature_Pamplet_INTERACTIVE_REV-1.pdf

Findings

When evaluating how my setting provide nature experiences, a gap was identified in staff confidence and skills. To ensure the gap was closed and to further my skills and knowledge, my colleague and I signed up to an ongoing course to help educators engage in nature. This provided us with the opportunity to learn den building, fire building, outdoor cooking and exploring nature around us. By demonstrating these new skills in the setting we have seen higher levels of children outdoors with increasing levels of engagement.

The questionnaire sent out to parents indicated they understood the importance of engaging in nature however the level of children not getting access to outdoors out with nursery was high. The reasons being recent wintry weather, not having access to a garden at home and not having the confidence to engage in nature experiences.

From the observational study at the play and stay sessions in the nursery garden it shows parents standing back and watching their child without playing with them or supporting their curiosity.

Child – “look a worm” they said holding it in their hands.

Parent– “let’s just put it back, they aren’t nice”

Child – it’s a nice worm, it’s a daddy one, come see

Parent – no, go wash your hands. Don’t touch!

After the session the question of ‘is the parents/families the main barrier to children engaging in nature’ arose.

Intervention took place at this point and parents/families were invited in for another stay and play session. This time there was planned experiences to try break down that barrier and encourage families to be involved with their child and embrace nature. Influenced by Froebelian experiences from the ‘Re-engaging with nature’ pamphlet the children and families worked together to make a bug hotel and explore the different mini beasts in the nursery garden. I modelled language that demonstrated interest, curiosity and questioning to deepen the children’s thinking.

During the observation period I heard the parent from the case study above ask their child what they liked about the worms. This showed progression in the way they interacted with their child over their interest of worms. The child showed excitement through smiles and laughter and spoke about worms for a long period of time.

Froebel believed in the importance of the family in educating children and realised that some parents and carers need to be supported by their setting. This was evident through the levels of engagement after just one practitioner-led nature session.

To showcase our new skills from the hub session myself and the other practitioner planned an all-day session to the Helix [large natural park] where five families attended. My setting has frequent visits to the Helix in all weathers to provide children the chance to see changes in the environment in all seasons.

There was a mix of planned experiences stemming from children’s interests and also free flow opportunities to encourage interactions.

During the observational period I focused on the interactions from the family who had previously shown little engagement at the stay and play session.

Child –“ I want to look for bugs”

Parent – “I wonder what this is” pointing to a magnifying glass

Child – “I can look in it. It makes the bugs bigger”

Parent– “wow cool, lets see what we can find. Let’s look under these rocks. We could research bugs on my phone and we can see what they are called and what kind of home they like”.

The levels of interaction and engagement had increased again since the stay and play sessions. When asking the parent how they felt they said the nature experiences had given them and their child a new interest to explore and it helped their confidence to grow in taking the interest forward.

To gain feedback I asked parents/families to fill out a small questionnaire of what they thought was going well and what they thought could be improved. All families involved said their confidence had grew with engaging in nature with their child and this was due to the educators modelling nature experiences and questioning.

Conclusion

The project acknowledged the importance of children engaging in nature together with families.

The progression from the first stay and play session to the all-day sessions was evident in the way families interacted with their child and asked questions to promote their curiosity. By the end most families were independently exploring nature with their child.

A feedback questionnaire after the research period showed parents confidence had increased and they were eager to go out and explore nature with their child out with nursery.

Children were also asked to reflect on their favourite part of the experience. They chose to draw a picture of their favourite thing and most pictures had their parents/families included.

Moving forward my setting will continue to invite parents/families to all day nature sessions at the helix and also into our garden to share our new skills from the outdoor hub sessions, in particular fire building, outdoor cooking, and gardening in our allotments.

Research implications

At Victoria, whether in an early years setting or in school, we understand the importance of the outdoors to the development of a child as well as their engagement with learning. It was important to Froebel and his principles but beyond that, we understand how significant it is for a child’s wellbeing as a whole. We have recently made significant strides in improving our use of the outdoors, such as by engaging with CPD around fire lighting, excursions, The Hub outdoor training, etc, and thus this research is important for us a setting to help us reflect and develop our use of the outdoor even further. This is something we will continue to encourage, build, and develop. Our staff are all committed to providing the best possible start to our children, both in and outdoors, and they have all been very engaged in the many opportunities to develop our outdoor space for all.

One of the key implications from this project is supporting families with changing attitudes toward outdoors, such as the risk-taking or messiness aspects. By involving families in outings – or even in activities in our own outdoor spaces – and modelling languages and interactions, this research showed that there can be changes and improvements for families as a whole. Involving families again in our activities is something that has recently returned following the break due to covid, and so ensuring that this is a focus – particularly with outdoor activities – can help families to support their children in accessing outdoor spaces themselves in their own time too, as well as help to build relationships between the school/ELC and families.

Practitioner enquiry

Our school and setting as a whole has always placed a lot of value on practitioner research and certainly this project has important messages for early years and our setting as a whole about both how to best involve families in the outdoors and in a more general sense, supporting our families with their own skills, knowledge, and confidence when it comes to outdoor activities with their children. As a result, we have been very proactive in inviting families in for a range of activities and outings, and we will continue to support our families as much as we can by building strong relationships.

We will ensure that the key messages from this project are shared across early level and that we continue to train staff members so all children can benefit from high quality outdoor experiences – both within our settings and at home too, supporting where we can.

Leadership learning

The key message from this research that I will ensure that I take forward is that while it is easy to think that something so fundamental to us at Victoria – outdoor learning and experiences – is something we all have in our practitioner toolkits, that actually it be more complicated than it looks. While we are thankful to be able to provide our children with these experiences within our own setting, their experience can be made so much more valuable if families are equally committed and engaged with these experiences, both within the setting and at home. It emphasises the importance of a positive, deep working relationship between our practitioners and home. I will continue to encourage and support staff with their own personal development particularly relating to the outdoors, and as an early level, we will ensure that families are involved as often as possible in our activities and supported wherever possible.

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Mairead Wilson
    Mairead Wilson
    08 Jun 2023 at 10:13 am

    I really enjoyed reading the progress you made with colleagues to build on knowledge and confidence. It was lovely to read how the parents have embraced being outdoors in nature and having quality interactions, with sensitive encouragement from staff. I’m sure everyone benefited from a visit to the Helix Park


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  2. Donna Green
    Donna Green
    15 Jun 2023 at 12:00 pm

    Wonderful to read how you used your lead role of outdoors to explore and add focus and depth through your practitioner inquiry. Love that families are invited to join the nature opportunities both on site and offsite – hopefully this will become embedded as part of the practice and it will be great to hear how it all continues to evolve. Well done Emma.
    Questions it raised for me: I wonder where else are the green spaces in your community that families visit?


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