Early childhood educators nurture young children’s enthusiasm for learning in nature

Bergan, V. ., Nylund, M. B., Midtbø, I. L., & Paulsen, B. H. L. (2023). The teacher’s role for engagement in foraging and gardening activities in kindergarten. Environmental Education Research. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2023.2181271

Early childhood educators’ role in supporting and facilitating environmental education is the focus of this paper. Specifically, this study investigated the teachers’ role within foraging and gardening activities at a kindergarten situated in the Artic region of Norway. The researchers sought to explore how educators foster children’s engagement and inspire learning within the context of harvesting and cultivating food.

The study took place at a Norwegian kindergarten. Kindergartens in Norway are educational and care institutions for children from birth to six years of age. Foraging activities centered on collecting flowers and berries at a natural site within a short walk from the kindergarten. Juices and flavors from foraged flowers and berries were extracted by the children and used to make cordials. Gardening activities focused on planting and harvesting potatoes within the kindergarten’s yard. Seven experienced teachers participated in the study. The main teacher, who led the activities, also served as a researcher. Data collection incorporated over eight hours of video, which was captured by the researchers and/or teachers, who wore GoPro cameras during gardening and foraging activities. Other data sources included field notes from communications with teachers and observation of activities. Two group interviews were also conducted with teachers.

Analysis of the data revealed three themes regarding teachers’ role in foraging and garden-based learning: 1) Facilitating adventurous experiences, 2) Child-centered communication, and 3) Building collective knowledge and skills. Within the first theme, teachers were “expedition leaders,” facilitating new discoveries through both searching for plants in nature and in leading experiential learning. Foraging and creating the finished product were adventurous and open-ended learning experiences. Teachers’ roles centered upon leading with enthusiasm and curiosity, following children’s interests, and encouraging exploration. The theme of child-centered communication focused on teachers’ attentiveness to children’s curiosities and interests. Communication was “inquiry- and dialogue-based” and embodied a “respectful and engaging style.” Teachers demonstrated an open flexibility as they followed the lead of the children. The final theme, building collective knowledge and skills, was revealed through teachers’ intentional sharing of knowledge with each other and with children. Teachers were committed to building new understanding and allowed children to gain skills by doing the physical work associated with foraging and gardening. Teachers were attentive to sharing knowledge with children and children’s enthusiasm and interest was highly evident throughout the activities.

The research highlights the essential role early childhood educators play in leading outdoor learning such as foraging and gardening-based activities for young children. Teachers’ own engagement and enthusiasm for adventurous outdoor experiences was shown to support children’s engagement and enthusiasm. The value of child-centered communication was also demonstrated in inspiring learning and nurturing curiosity. Overall, the research supports the view that teachers are important role models in engaging children in outdoor, nature-based learning.

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