Teachers’ opportunities for mentorship are essential to risky outdoor play and learning in schools

Zeni, M. ., Schnellert, L. ., & Brussoni, M. . (2023). “We do it anyway”: Professional identities of teachers who enact risky play as a framework for education outdoors. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s42322-023-00140-6

Education outdoors considers the schoolyard and nearby natural spaces as an interactive context for daily school learning and is a form of outdoor learning and play. Risky play, as a pedagogical approach within education outdoors, can inspire engagement with learning that enables curricular content to “emerge directly from children’s outdoor play.” This research aimed to identify the “skills, dispositions and knowledge” of educators who facilitate education outdoors and risky play in the school context.

A cohort (n=17) of certified and experienced K-8 teachers, who utilize an education outdoors approach, from varied locations in British Columbia, Canada participated in the study. The cohort functioned as a learning community as teachers inquired into their education outdoors practices with researchers. Teachers attended six virtual meetings over a six-month period. Recordings of the meetings were transcribed and analyzed.

Findings document how teachers sustained a “plucky persistence for education outdoors, in the face of significant challenges, personal discomfort, and viable alternatives to simply teach inside.” Three main themes were identified: informal knowledge and skills developed in context, developing knowledge and skills, and dispositions. In deciding to increase access to risky play, teachers mainly drew on their informal knowledge and skills, developed through lived experience and their own childhoods. Mentorship by experienced schoolteachers was especially vital to the development of knowledge and skills specific to teaching outdoors and even enabled teachers who were lacking outdoor play experience to embrace education outdoors. Overall, teachers demonstrated “dispositions of persistence, resilience, and self-efficacy.” A common challenge reported by teachers included disliking the outdoors or cold, wet conditions themselves. Teachers in the study were determined to persist for the wellbeing of their students, despite personal discomfort. Teachers’ self-efficacy was evident as they followed their instincts to prioritize students’ wellness over the structured curriculum. Emergent learning from play was considered joyful and meaningful, and enhanced teachers’ job fulfillment. “Pedagogical decision-making often reflected teacher confidence in the power of unstructured play to satisfy the wellness needs of learners, which translated to job satisfaction for educators.” Teacher resilience was shown through flexible attitudes in the face of challenges and was also demonstrated through their tolerance for risky play. Additionally, “collegial resilience,” supported through collaboration and mentorship, enabled teachers to maintain their education outdoors practice and resist an “inevitable default towards a traditional system of schooling.”

The study supports education outdoors “as a promising pedagogical approach for improving measures of wellness in children while potentially also improving teacher retention.” Findings encourage expanding professional mentorship on outdoor play and learning. The researchers conclude: “Advocacy for teacher leadership and mentorship in education outdoors, for teachers and by teachers, is necessary to build capacity and leverage how risky play can co-exist within systems of schooling.” Further, education outdoors as a part of every child’s school day would improve equitable access to outdoor learning and play for all students.

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