A Forest Kindergarten: How Four Children Experience Learning and Living Outdoors
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Children have the intrinsic drive to play and be outdoors, as well as the curiosity to explore the world around them (Louv, 2008). Connections and interactions with nature tend to be beneficial for children’s cognitive development, with outcomes ranging from improved cognitive functioning (Wells, 2000) to the development of important academic skills (Miller, 2007). Perhaps more significant though are the positive outcomes among nature, health, and wellbeing (e.g., Taylor & Kuo, 2009), along with the cultivation of environmental appreciation, empathy, and stewardship (e.g., Ewert et al., 2005). Many nature-based early years programs have been developed and adopted around the world, placing emphasis on fostering children’s experiences, interactions, and connections with the natural world. As this global early years phenomenon continues to build momentum, the need to investigate how children are experiencing these nature-based early years programs becomes more pertinent. The purpose of this study was to gain an in-depth understanding of four children’s experiences at a nature-based early years program located in a small town on the outskirts of an Eastern Ontario urban centre. Data were collected using qualitative methodology (observations, photographs, semi-structured interviews, and photo elicitation) and took place over a five-week period in the winter term. Data were analyzed using conventional qualitative means, through open coding and identifying categories and overarching themes (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010). Using Place-Based Education as the theoretical guide, data were explored using three main themes: lived experience; connections to place and to community; and learning, growth, and development. The findings from this research not only illuminate the children’s experiences at a nature-based early years program, but also provide the fertile ground upon which further examination and discussion can grow—an examination and discussion of the significance of nature-based learning as it relates to contemporary education.