Lens on Outdoor Learning
Banning, Wendy and Sullivan, Ginny (2010).
St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press; 206 pages. $49.95. ISBN 9781605540245.
Educators are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of outdoor experiences for children. However, many of today’s educators belong to a generation that has experienced the disappearance of natural play spaces and the restriction of time outdoors due to increasing time spent in structured activities, parents concerned about safety, and the allure of electronic company. Therefore, many contemporary educators lack a foundation of outdoor experiences and, although they know that outdoor experiences are important for children, they do not know where to begin. Lens on Outdoor Learning can provide the guidance early childhood educators need to get started providing meaningful outdoor experiences for children. The goal of the book is to provide practical guidance in how to use the outdoors to effectively support early learning. This much-needed resource addresses the current movement in the field to incorporate early learning standards and assessment into curriculum planning by specifically illustrating how meaningful outdoor experiences can support learning and development.
The authors chose to focus on early learning standards related to “approaches to learning,” because it is an important developmental task for early childhood that lays the foundation for future learning, and because it is difficult to measure and plan for experiences that support the competencies encompassed by approaches to learning. The authors reviewed early learning standards across the United States and compiled a representative and comprehensive list of standards for the approaches to learning domain, which include: (1) curiosity and initiative; (2) engagement and persistence; (3) imagination, invention, and creativity; (4) reasoning and problem-solving; (5) risk-taking, responsibility, and confidence; (6) reflection, interpretation, and application; and (7) flexibility and resilience. The authors pose the question: “How does one plan for curiosity, initiative, persistence, risk taking, and resilience?” (p. 3). Their response is to offer children opportunities to practice and develop these dispositions—and of critical importance, the authors describe the role of educators in this process. The authors extensively observed children’s play and work and documented their learning to illustrate how children can meet standards in all domains of development within an outdoor environment.
The book begins by providing an overview of the unique opportunities for learning in nature, followed by a chapter dedicated to each of the seven early learning standards related to “approaches to learning.” Within each chapter the authors use narratives that illustrate children’s learning in action, providing examples of the richness and complexity of children’s learning outdoors. The unique role of the outdoors in the children’s narrative is described, as is the role of the teacher in supporting children’s learning. Engaging photographs of children’s learning in action bring the stories to life.
The final chapter examines the complementary roles of the child, the environment, and the educator. Guidance is provided for designing and provisioning an effective environment for learning, which includes ample time for extended play and inquiry, and plentiful access to nature. Natural environments provide the content: physics, biology, botany, geology, the interconnections among life and elements, and systems and cycles of water, weather, and seasons, for example. The teacher’s role is to plan the environment, give children time and autonomy to explore it, nurture positive relationships, and to observe, support, and extend children’s learning. This role requires deep engagement with children and with the environment. Learning standards provide a framework for analyzing children’s work and play.
Lens on Outdoor Learning describes unique qualities of natural outdoor environments and opportunities for learning that cannot be replicated indoors. Children have more choices and more freedom to move physically outdoors, as well as more freedom to flow in, out, and between activities. This freedom allows children to select activities and places that are intrinsically captivating, and therefore elicit dispositions such as engagement and persistence. Children are also able to select just the right level of challenge for themselves, which supports risk-taking, responsibility, and confidence. Natural environments offer variety and dynamic, but predictable change. “Loose parts” such as sticks, pine cones, leaves, stones, sand, and water are open-ended and offer infinite possibilities for play and investigation. Children can revisit experiences over an extended period of time, observing changes in natural phenomena such as life cycles of plants or changing states of matter such as water, as well as revisiting and extending play that is increasingly deep and complex. The natural environment poses challenges to which children must respond by using a “broad range of cognitive aptitudes including measurement, planning, problem solving, and sequencing” (p. 1). Sometimes children cannot solve problems alone, and therefore they must call upon social skills such as communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution.
A particularly fascinating observation by the authors is that often children’s dispositions and behavior are mirrored by their teacher’s dispositions and behavior. For example, curious, engaged children had curious, engaged teachers. Teachers who modeled inquiry and asked open-ended questions had children who asked many of their own questions. Teachers who planned environments that supported choices and autonomy had the most independent and confident children. The authors concluded that the behaviors and attitudes of teachers have a profound impact on the quality of children’s experiences, and ultimately the children’s own behaviors and attitudes.
Lens on Outdoor Learning effectively brings together key contemporary issues: the worldwide movement to re-connect children with nature and the impetus of accountability for children’s learning. The authors effectively document how these two movements can come together while honoring play, which is children’s natural and most effective mode of learning. This volume is well suited for pre-service teachers as well as practicing teachers, trainers, and administrators.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Julia Torquati received her degree in Family Studies from the University of Arizona. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches child development and early childhood education classes and conducts research on environmental education, childrens relationships, and quality of early childhood programs. The focus of her current research is investigating the influence of nature on childrens attention, cognition, and self-regulation.