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Learning theories guiding outdoor education: Playful learning theory

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Education-2nd Edition by Ken Gilbertson,Alan Ewert,Pirkko Siklander & Timothy Bates.

In the early years of outdoor and environmental education, it was commonly believed that children under 3rd grade (9 years old) were simply too young to be able to learn about nature. That notion has changed dramatically, and a fast-growing body of research has developed into a subdiscipline called “nature play” or “young children with nature.” This section addresses how nature play—or playful learning—is a critical component of outdoor education and how to teach young children about and through nature. We now provide outdoor educational learning experiences for children as young as 2 years old. Some key terms that apply more commonly and specifically to young children and nature are the following:

  • Agency means seeing children as active participants in society. Specifically in nature play, agency refers to the child’s ability to interact with, contribute to, and develop themselves within the social circle in which they are participating (James 2009). While agency is used often in nature play literature, it is also known as efficacy or one’s self-belief when working with teens through adults.
  • Affordance involves the opportunities in nature that the teacher provides for their students, such as a nature play site (figure 3.3) or a small stream to explore. These affordances are referred to as the setting for older children and adults.

Figure 3.3 A nature playscape provides lots of opportunities for affordance.
Figure 3.3 A nature playscape provides lots of opportunities for affordance.
Reprinted by permission from 3 Owls Outdoor Play Consultants, LLC.

Teaching and learning is a reciprocal process; therefore, both the teacher’s role and the students’ roles in the process should be considered. Teaching covers pedagogical thinking, which refers to teachers making constant educational decisions based on certain pedagogical criteria in their learning context. It is important to know how your decisions are justified and implemented into your practices (e.g., Kansanen et al. 2000). Your key focus as a teacher is to help your students participate in their activities, feed their curiosity, and make outdoor learning processes inspiring and meaningful. Play and playfulness in outdoor education are correlated with core competencies such as development of thinking and learning skills, problem solving, self-regulation, and collaboration. Your role in outdoor playful learning processes can vary between a leader, an allowing (agency), and an afforder. This means that the roles adopted by teachers and students are complementary and interdependent.

  • The more the teacher leads the playful learning process, the fewer possibilities their students have to be actively engaged.
  • Guiding students to be actively engaged in their learning is referred to as allowing, or building agency (James 2009; Hyvönen 2011). This is especially true when working with young children but applies to all age groups. A balance should be found between directed leading and student engagement.
  • The setting the teacher provides for student learning allows the affordance for engaged learning (e.g., a nature play site, a tree to climb, a cliff to climb). Affordance is a term used predominantly in the area of young children and nature.

The three roles of the teacher highlight a rich and comprehensive developmental view of learning. The teacher designs playful and interesting learning processes based on integration of play or activity and the curriculum (Hyvönen 2011).

More Excerpts From Outdoor Education 2nd Edition