Research Summary

Back to the Garten: Ontario kindergarteners learn and grow through schoolyard pedagogy

Inquiry-based learning in the outdoor classroom may promote children’s autonomy

Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

The purpose of this study was to explore kindergarteners’ experiences in an outdoor inquiry-based classroom. The researchers were especially interested in children’s view of their own experiences and their role as social actors in the learning process. Two research questions guided the study: (1) What do students report about their experiences in an outdoor, inquiry-based classroom setting? (2) What do teachers report about their observations of children’s experiences in an outdoor, inquiry-based classroom setting? Inquiry-based learning involves open-ended investigation into students’ queries. Teachers, in this approach to education, serve as “provocateurs” in helping students address their own inquiries. This approach to education views children as being active agents in their own learning and capable of critical engagement in their own lives. The focus of inquiry-based learning is on children’s own questions, observations and interpretations of the world around them.

This study was conducted with three inquiry-based kindergarten classrooms at a public school in Canada with a focus on the children’s experiences in their outdoor classroom. Fifteen individuals participated in the study: twelve kindergarten students (four from each of the three kindergarten classes) and three teachers (one from each class). The researchers conducted individual semi-structured interviews with all the teacher and kindergarten participants. The interviews focused on the participants’ accounts of their experiences in the outdoor classroom and on what was most important to them. The kindergarten interviews consisted of a student-guided tour of the outdoor classroom and schoolyard during which students pointed out aspects of the space to highlight their experiences. The student interviews lasted 7 to 20 minutes. Teacher interviews were 20–30 minutes in duration, during which the teachers reflected back on happenings they observed while the kindergarteners were learning in the outdoor, inquiry-based classroom.

The interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Key ideas were then identified through a process of coding individual responses. Three major themes emerged: (1) student-led experiences in the outdoor classroom, (2) lessons experienced in the outdoor classroom, and (3) boundaries to learning in the outdoor classroom. The most prominent theme focused on the kindergarteners guiding their own experiences in the outdoor classroom. This finding indicates that the outdoor setting provided a platform for students to engage with their learning in a way that is personally meaningful to them.

This research highlights how encouraging the autonomy of young people in their outdoor learning environments can promote student empowerment and help them relate in a meaningful way to the natural and social world around them.

MacDonald, K., & Breunig, M.. (2018). Back to the Garten: Ontario kindergarteners learn and grow through schoolyard pedagogy. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. doi: