Some research indicates that children's engagement with nature and natural elements can promote their interest in natural science topics. Interest in a topic is generally understood to develop through different phases and that progression through these phases needs adequate support. This study examined how children's interest in natural elements appears and develops during exploratory activities in natural outdoor environments and how teachers can support such interest in natural settings.
Two kindergartens and two second grade primary school classes in Norway participated in the study. The children ranged in age from four to eight. Approximately 42 hours of action camera video recordings, along with field notes, were used as data for this study. The action cameras were mounted on the chests of the teachers and three children from each class during outdoor exploratory activities. One of the researchers, who assumed the role of an onsite nonparticipant observer, also wore a camera. All conversations dealing with science topics (plants, animals, puddles, etc.) were transcribed from the teachers' cameras. Information from the children's and researcher's cameras and from the researcher's field notes was used to better understand situations where the activities or dialogues from the teachers' cameras were unclear. In analyzing the data, the researchers focused on (1) where interest occurred, (2) phases of interest as expressed by children, and (3) teachers' support in developing interest. Interest was determined by visible and/or vocal aspects of three central characteristics of interest: affect, knowledge, and value.
Eighty-five episodes of interest were identified – some initiated by the children through their own discoveries or previous observations of natural elements; some initiated by the teachers presenting or showing natural elements to the children. An analysis of these episodes indicate that children's interest in natural elements develops from a pre-interest phase of discovery (involving a “trigger for interest”) to a well-developed individual interest by transitioning through three phases: one involving first-hand experience of the natural element; one where children observe, explore and comment on the natural element's characteristics; and one where they reflect on and apply the knowledge they have acquired. Openness to acquiring factual information occurs during the second phase. An analysis of the episodes also shows that teachers' subject matter expertise and their skill in practicing social and cognitive congruence with the children during exploratory activities outdoors support children's interest in natural elements. Congruence involves paying attention to children and engaging in their activities. It also involves establishing links between the child's perspective and the object of learning.
This study suggests that children's interest in natural elements develops through stages and that teachers can support such interest by identifying the different stages of interest, having sufficient subject matter expertise, and being skilled in practicing social and cognitive congruence with the children.