Preservice Teachers Identify Outdoor Learning's Benefits and Barriers

Ernst, J., & Tornabene, L. (2012). Preservice early childhood educators' perceptions of outdoor settings as learning environments. Environmental Education Research, 18, 643 - 664.

With mounting evidence that outdoor experiences are important for young learners, researchers are increasingly examining nature education in preschool. This study explored preservice preschool teachers' preferences for different natural landscapes, feelings of connection to nature (nature relatedness), and motivations and barriers to using natural settings for education.

The researchers worked with 110 students involved in a university's early childhood teaching licensure program. The teaching students were spread across the program's four years. The authors presented the preservice teachers with photographs depicting different local outdoor settings, including water, woods, an open grassy field, and a park. The photos were all taken during spring, did not include people, and depicted these different settings in both undeveloped and developed states. A questionnaire explored the preservice teachers' preferences for the different landscapes, which settings they thought were most conducive to education, and how likely they would be to use natural settings with their students. The questionnaire also included items to rate the preservice teachers' level of nature relatedness.

The preservice teachers identified a playground, pavilion in the woods, and shoreline of Lake Superior as the most conducive to education. They viewed an open forest with no path, open grassy field with no path, and stream with narrow foot path as the least conducive to education. There was some overlap with the preservice teachers' personal preferences for the natural areas, with the shoreline of Lake Superior also among the most preferred landscapes, and the stream with the narrow footpath among the least preferred landscapes. There did not appear to be a connection between a preservice teacher's level of nature relatedness and his or her landscape preferences.

A site's ease of use with young children was most frequently given as a reason for a site's educational benefits, while safety hazards were most often named as making a site least conducive to education. As a result, teachers were most likely to point to maintained, and not undeveloped, sites as the most conducive to education. The preservice teachers' personal preferences, however, led them to select undeveloped sites as their favorite landscapes.

The preservice teachers believed that outdoor experiences would foster appreciation for the environment, and they generally agreed that these types of experiences would be beneficial for their students' development and health. The preservice teachers were most likely to name the need for transportation to natural areas as a barrier to using natural outdoor settings. Nevertheless, as a whole, the preservice teachers indicated they were likely to use natural outdoor settings to teach. The researchers found that a preservice teacher's perceptions of the difficulty of using outdoor settings, recognition of the importance of outdoor experiences on children's wellness, and his or her level of nature relatedness predicted an intention to use an outdoor setting for education.

In summary, it appears that preservice teachers are particularly concerned about safety hazards and the ease of use of outdoor natural areas. As a result, the preservice teachers preferred maintained natural areas for education. Working to change preservice teachers' beliefs about these potential barriers could help increase the use of natural areas for education. In addition, most of the teachers believed that outdoor settings were good places for learning about nature, not necessarily developing other knowledge and skills while they were in nature. The authors conclude that “these results suggest there is an opportunity for environmental educators to better convey the importance of unstructured learning and nature exploration. . . .” They caution, however, that this research was conducted with just one group of preservice teachers, and more research with preservice teachers in other areas with different cultural backgrounds could help confirm the results.

The Bottom Line

<p>Although some preservice preschool teachers may personally prefer undeveloped natural landscapes, when considering them as sites for teaching and learning, they tend to prefer more maintained outdoor areas as beneficial educational settings. The preservice teachers in this study named concerns about safety and ease of use among the reasons they might not use a natural area for teaching. In this study, a teacher's recognition of the importance of nature experience for children's health and wellness was the strongest predictor of his or her intention to use natural outdoor settings in his or her teaching. Professional development for early childhood educators that emphasized the developmental and educational benefits and opportunities provided by natural play areas and provided strategies for overcoming the challenges might increase the educators' comfort with these settings and, thus, enhance their use.</p>