Children develop a sense of competence playing in the woods

Stanley, E. (2011). The place of outdoor play in a school community: A case study of recess values. Children, Youth And Environments, 21, 185-211.

This article describes an ethnographic case study conducted at a small school for children with dyslexia. The focus of the study was on the value children placed on their school's play environment. This environment offered some non-traditional play opportunities in that it included a densely wooded hillside bounded by a stream.

Three questions guided this research conducted at the Jemicy School near Baltimore, Maryland: (1) What values are associated with outdoor play at Jemicy School? (2) What is the association of these values to the child-environment relationship that occurs during and as a result of outdoor play at school? and (3) How could the values associated with outdoor play in school affect the sustainability of recess practices? Data collected for this study was by way of video-recorded observations of children over a two-year period, field notes and reflective journals, and audio-recorded interviews of children, teachers, administrators, parents, and alumni.

Eleven children were selected as a focal group for their observed preference of two play areas – the woods and a more traditional playground. Nine of the children spent most of their recess time in the woods, while the other two spent their time in other parts of the school's outdoor playspace. Approximately 50 hours of video-taped play behaviors were collected during this field-based component of the study. Data was also collected by way of 32 interviews focusing on the broader social context of children's recess play behavior.

All video and interview data were transcribed, coded, and compiled into themes. The play behavior pattern that emerged reflected findings of previous research. At around 11 years of age, many children moved from the woods to a more standard playground or sports field where they interacted with larger social groups. Most students, however, spent two to three years engaged primarily in the woods and indicated that the woods played an important role in the development of a sense of competence that extended beyond the classroom walls.

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