The early years of the children’s life are crucial for everyone to shape life-long attitudes, values, patterns of behaviour and the basic skills for life. Early Childhood Education must provide different opportunities for children to experience different feelings such as peace, happiness and an interest towards nature because these emotions ‘undergird their developing knowledge, skills and dispositions’ (Gardner, 1999, as cited in NAAEE, 2010 p. 2). As from the very first stages, children are enthusiastic, effective and curious of what is happening around them. Their minds and bodies are growing at a very fast rate, developing neural links which they eventually use for the rest of their lives. Learning is an ongoing process and for the children, experience is everything. On the other hand, positive interactions with the natural environment in the early years are also a critical part of a healthy child development and these interactions stimulate learning and recognize the value of life across one’s lifetime (Wilson, 1996). The environment where the activities take place is an important factor in early year’s education. Materials could be found everywhere to stimulate and enhance curiosity. However, the adult role is important as s/he should facilitate and nurtures the sense of awe in children (NAAEE, 2010).
The importance of outdoor activities
Even though various studies sustain that being outdoors have lots of benefits on the children, recent research shows that many parents, practitioners and school administers are facing with educational challenges, however action is not being taken. According to Coyle, 2010, American children are occupying 7 hours and 38 minutes a day, which are 53 hours per week indoors, as children are having a habit to use technology during recreations such as video games and television. Transportation is likely to be by car or other vehicle rather than by foot. Also, there was a great shift in American education towards students’ performance on state wide standardized tests where children are being more orientated towards the classroom than the outdoors (Wilson, 1996), and we are experiencing the same dynamics in Malta too. Due to this, regular outdoor time, especially time spend in natural environments, is decreasing at a rapid rate, causing it to become a thing of the past. Guardians should provide children with time spend in the outdoors; however, schools should make their part. By doing so, schools will help students to become more educated and stronger life skills (Coyle, 2010). The outdoor environment can be utilised to widen indoor learning. The CCRU, 2008, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009, described the outdoor environment as something more than a place where the children can burn off steam, where professionals such as educators, designers and architects accept the idea that outdoor play spaces promote more opportunities as it provides the highest level of development and learning. When it is used in the best ways, the outdoor environment provides opportunities for investigation, exploration and social interaction. ‘It can be used as a stage for every child to explore, expand, treasure and enjoy’ (North Carolina, 2002, p.1).
Benefits of outdoor activities
Kahn & Kellert, 2002, as cited in Parsons, 2011, suggest that children’s physical and mental development is changed on experiences in nature. Sobel, 2008, as cited in Parsons, 2011, stated that experiences in nature are more crucial than data and book learning about nature to generate childhood links with the natural world. Agreeing with this, O’Brien, 2009, as cited in Parsons, 2011, indicated that if children do not have experience in natural areas and green spaces when they are still in the early years, they will grow up into adults who have not developed social, cultural and emotional links with the natural world. Educational research reinforces the idea that the greater the number of environmental variables we expose children to, the more imaginable and creative the children will become (Ramey, 1973, as cited in Coyle, 2010). Gardner declared that practitioners should pay closer attention to students who show signs of being gifted in musical arts, nature, designs and other aspects of human attainments. The multiple elements of environmental education consist of using some of our senses such as sight, touch, and sound which contributed to the child’s natural intelligence. The outdoors provides meaningful learning variables and instructive benefits that will support the children to have happier lives and assist the society to have a more effective and sensible future generations (Coyle, 2010). Education for sustainable development allows every human being to develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values necessary for a sustainable future for the next generation. According to the UNESCO, education for sustainable development means that one should incorporate issues into teaching methodologies such as climate change, biodiversity and poverty reduction. It also involves learning methods that motivate and encourage the children to modify their behaviour as it promotes critical thinking to take action for sustainable development.
The research in the report conducted by Coyle, 2010, describes two main benefits if schools perform a more effective role in outdoor education and focuses more on the time for children.
1. Play in the outdoor environment helps students to become high-performance students with different abilities that they will carry throughout their lives.
2. Activities in the outdoors help students to perform much better as it employs all of the children’s intrinsic intelligences, ranging from different subjects to interpersonal communications. Also, students from low-income families perform significantly better in school while increase children’s motivation to learn more, classroom behaviour is improved, students concentrate for longer periods which helps them to learn across various disciplines. Due to these factors, children are less inclined to drop out of school as they see it as something enjoyable.
Coyle, 2010, also stated that various studies have found that children, who attend forest kindergartens, where children spend the morning playing and learning in the woods regardless of the weather, encounter fewer accidents as they are better at assessing risks and are less to get sick as the time spent in the outdoors will strengthen a child’s immune system. Gorges, as cited in Coyle, 2010, discovered that children who have gone through a forest kindergarten were beyond the mean compared to other children who had not participated in the program. They were above in all areas assessed such as knowledge and skills in particular subjects, literacy and maths achievement, communication and inquisitive skills and motivation in learning. The children do not benefit only if they had to experience forest kindergarten. The outdoors, whether it is represented in a simple schoolyard garden or a wilderness park, provide children with different opportunities to develop abilities and backgrounds to become highly efficient and high-performance learners. Other research specifies that extra time spent outdoors may help children to have better ability to concentrate, clearer memories and better school satisfaction (Trudeau, 2008, as cited in Coyle, 2010). Concurrent with this, Hoody, 2000, as cited in Coyle, 2010, conducted a seer study on the effect of environmental education on student’s achievement and found that those participating in the environment-based education programs had higher results on tests which measured academic achievements in literacy, maths, science and social studies, class management problems were reduced, engagement and enthusiasm for learning was on the rise and the children felt pride in their accomplishments.
As we are facing various health challenges for example an increase in levels of obesity, stress and other health concerns such as sleep and gastro-related problems and osteoporosis, different professionals such as psychologists and social scientists have directed their attention to investigate the outdoors and its potential in alleviating such health problems (Andersen et al., 2004, Stratton and Mullan, 2005, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009). According to the North Carolina, 2002, the outdoors also provides physical health benefits such as having active physical fitness and physical development, which results in larger muscle development. Policy makers, even in Malta, have started promoting the use of outdoors as a means of increasing public health such as recommending green gym types of exercise (Bird, 2007, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009). Being in the outdoors the children experience fresh air and an environment which is freer of germ containment. Sunlight also exhibits its part, especially in Malta, since it provides a source of Vitamin D which helps in the absorption of Calcium. They also would benefit from mental and emotional health where children, teachers and also parents feel less stressed especially if the outdoor space encourages exercise. The outdoors also promotes independence where tranquillity, beauty and peace take over as it offers a sense of freedom. There is more space to move about, shout, sing, jog, run and release energy without the concern of breaking something and are free to experience anything. ‘The sky belongs to everyone, as do the birds, butterflies, and sunshine. Outdoor children have the clouds, the wind, the rain and the bugs. These do not belong to anyone’, (Rivkin, 1995, as cited in North Caroline, 2002, p.5).
With regards to health issues, there has been a particular focus on the relation between contact with nature and the alleviation of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Taylor and Kuo (2001, 2008), (as cited in Mu??oz, 2009) found that outdoor activities, as simple as a walk can assist children with ADHD by increasing their concentration levels and easing ADHD symptoms. It was also found that ADHD symptoms were not severe for those children who had the chance to experience outdoor play that incorporate aspects of nature.
The physical environment
Research associated with play suggests that outdoor spaces which were designed by adults tend not to embrace features that can expand the potential for children to engage and participate mentally and physically in the activities (Cunningham et al. 1996; Matthews et al. 1998, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009). It is also believed that chances for children to engage in adventurous play which would involve imagination and an element of risk-taking, is missing in many modern adult-designed play spaces (Johnson, 2004, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009). Another study suggests that in adult-designed play spaces, the concept of nature is missing even though it is has been proven that children enjoy being in the outdoors and that particular features can stimulate physical and creative play (White, 2004, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009). The outdoors is a place to be loud or quiet, active, observant, creative and risk-taking. It’s a place to create memories. The outdoor learning environment may not offer all of these opportunities every day, but it can incorporate most of these things throughout the year (North Caroline, 2002). A playground, both school and public ones, should be like a small-scale replica of the world, incorporating as many as possible sensory experiences which could be found in the world. Since outdoor spaces are considered to stimulate sensory skills, experiences for every sense are needed to be available for instances: rough and smooth, objects to look at and feel, light and heavy things to pick up to make their own conclusions, water and wet materials as well as dry things, cool materials and materials warmed by the sun, soft and hard surfaces, things that make sound for example running water and smells of all varieties which can help children to distinguish from one thing to another. The list is never-ending, and the bigger the number of object that are included, the richer the environment for the child and experiences for the children (Greenman, 1988, as cited in North Carolina, 2002). To re-engage children with the outdoors and link the advantages the outdoor play offers with the activities conducted in the natural spaces, it is considered to tackle not only the design and physical aspect of such aspects but also the attitudes of the community and public guidelines and strategies that have been restricting the children on the use of outdoor spaces (Gill, 2005, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009).
When children are able to investigate their environment, engage with it and are able to express themselves about it, the practitioner should support and extend this learning by engaging with the children in an inquisitive way. The practitioners should support the new learning through making links with previous experiences and questions are asked to help children think, reflect, observe, compare, measure, classify, design, communicate, hypothesize, predict, record, report and explore their environment and develop knowledge and skills. Context is also crucial in early environmental education. Educational materials are everywhere to be found to stimulate curiosity. However, it is up to the practitioners to facilitate and nurture the sense of awe in children (NAAEE, 2010). It is also the practitioner’s role to use the children’s investigation to bridge to other areas of the curriculum to scaffold the children’s learning.
Before planning, early childhood educators should combine their understanding of child development and suitable practice with an idea of the field in environmental education. This information provides a solid base on which educators can build their own practice. When planning, educators should provide interdisciplinary, inquisitive learning opportunities that are essential to environmental education and appropriate for young children. Environmental education opportunities should be offered on an ongoing basis (Bixler et al. 1994; Gaylord, 1987, as cited in Wilson, 1996). Ongoing environmental education programs are very limited. However, when available, they only benefit the upper and middle white class families and for the lower class, they are more likely to be affected negatively by their environment as the area they live in provides air pollution, noises and congestion. Before implementing environmental education programs, there are guidelines one should consider. Firstly, one should begin with simple experiences as children learn best when they relate with previous experiences. The activities planned should provide positive outdoor experiences as children learn best through direct, concrete experiences. Ideally, the exposure should be on a daily basis where children can experiment and investigate their outdoor environment. Rather than formal learning, children learn through discovery and investigation and the practitioner’s role is to facilitate rather than to teach. The focus of the activities should be led by the children’s interest. The educator should also demonstrate an interest in and enjoyment of the natural world as they are critical to the success of an early childhood environmental education program. The educator should also model caring and respect for the natural environment. These can be modelled through the gentle care of plants and animals both in the classroom and in outdoor settings, recycling and reusing as many materials as possible, always highlighting the benefits on the environment (Wilson, 1996). ‘If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder’ he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in’ (Carson, 1956, as cited in National Science Teachers Association, 2007, p. xi)
Parental and community involvement
Parents can also play an important role in helping their children to bridge with what is happening at school by allocating time for outdoor activities. Utilising parents, volunteers and/ or additional teachers to assist during outdoor time can expand the possibilities to encourage more outdoor activities. Coyle, 2010, emphasised that schools can provide outdoor play time but it was suggested that it makes more sense if parents are helping their children get enough outdoor time at home too. It is noted that in the U.S. they are facing a high rate of students who are dropping out from school. This would lead to unemployment, poverty; depend on public assistance, prison, unhealthy lifestyles, divorced or single-parent with children who might experience this viscid cycle again. Teaming up with other parents, they could create activities to promote more outdoor activities such as taking in turns who will watch the children while they are playing in the outdoors, encourage children to walk to school or the parents can team up with the school and create a walking bus. In Malta this has been adopted by some localities but more emphasise needs to be done so others can take up this example. Parents could also help schools and educators to conduct field trips and understanding the positive effects of outdoor activities on children, they should let the school and educators know that such approach is seen valuable and should be incorporated in their children’s school experience. According to Parsons, 2011, a child’s perception of the environment is highly influenced by the adults around the child. ‘Denying children of a chance to encounter nature, no matter how small, robs them of the very essence of life’, (Engwicht, 1992: 6, as cited by Mu??oz, 2009)
Outdoor activities, therefore, have been connected not only to positive health benefits and physical activities but it was associated with the overall levels of wellbeing resulting from performing exercise in open spaces that enable contact with nature. Much effort is needed as children are seen as ‘disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make the top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom”, (Gill, 2005, as cited in Mu??oz, 2009, p. 20). Children should develop respect and a caring perception towards the natural environment during the early years or they would be at risk for never developing such attitudes (Strapp, 1978; Tilbury, 1994; Wilson, 1994, as cited in Wilson, 1996). For sustainable development to succeed issues must be tackled on a local, national and international level and nations must work towards a global union and arrangement which compliments all and protect the honesty of the global environmental and developmental system (Sustainable Environment, 2015)
The 2010 educational picture is shifting toward a renewed emphasis on educating the whole child and not relying entirely on testing (Education week 2010, as cited in Coyle, 2010). Educators, parents and even the community should work in collaboration so children could build connections with their immediate environment. Effective environmental education has to be child-orientated which provides different opportunities for children to start making sense of things around them through hands-on investigation. When they are actively engaged in direct outdoor experiences, the children are encouraged to use higher-order thinking skills and when they are provided with real-world contexts, concept and skills are easily acquired. However, for this to be effective and emphasis should be given to strengthen teacher training programmes so as to share innovative practices and schools are encouraged and supported to modify their programmes to meet the needs of the present and future students (UNESCO, 1997). This is what is needed in the present education so as to bring about a revolution in learning which would truly promote an alternative idea of how learning should occur.