“Enrolling my child is the best decision I’ve ever made”: Gaining insights into outdoor learning and childcare

Published: 14 August 2019

Jessica Kenny shares her experience working on an outdoor nurseries research project as part of a summer studentship.

Published 14th August 2019

Jessica Kenny is a UofG Psychology and Neuroscience student who spent 10 weeks working in the Unit this summer.

Jessica Kenny

I was awarded a summer studentship working on a research study titled: “Exploring the potential of outdoor nurseries for the health and wellbeing of children and families”. The aims of this study were to explore parents’ understanding of the role of outdoor nurseries for their child’s health and wellbeing, and to examine how children spend their time in outdoor nurseries. The study is the first in a wider project, and findings will feed into a PhD studentship project.

With no prior fieldwork experience, the study appealed to me because I felt it would present a new challenge as well as make my working days more diverse. The studentship allowed me to gain experience in qualitative research, including naturalistic observation and facilitating focus groups and interviews. The fact that the project aimed to collect qualitative data also interested me, as I have found my Psychology course to focus heavily on statistics and quantitative methods.

What did the studentship involve?

Having already received ethical approval, weeks 0-3 focused on identifying and establishing relationships with nursery managers. I contacted nurseries which have outdoor provision to try and get them involved in the study. There was a lot of interest from managers, with seven nurseries taking part altogether.

I carried out the data collection and fieldwork portion of my studentship during weeks 4-9. I went outdoors with the nurseries to observe how the children spent their time. Using an observation schedule that I developed in advance as a guide, I took notes while out in the woods or parks, and included the types of activities the children did, their attitude towards the activities and children’s interaction with staff.

In weeks 5-10, I continued data collection but employed different qualitative methods to help triangulate the project findings. Parents were recruited to take part in an interview to discuss their opinions on outdoor learning. My supervisor, Dr Anne Martin, facilitated two paired interviews, and after observing these I felt confident enough to conduct another two focus groups by myself. It was extremely interesting to hear parents’ experiences of their child doing outdoor learning and their ideas for improving it will be helpful for the nurseries as well.

During my final three weeks, I started analysing the data I had collected. This was a challenge – for just a few weeks of work there was a lot of data! I transcribed three interviews and uploaded the transcripts into NVivo, where I coded similar pieces of information together to generate themes from the interviews. This was fairly easy as many of the parents across nurseries had similar views on outdoor learning.

Unexpected findings and recurrent themes

Parents identified improvements in their children’s confidence, sleeping pattern and speech. Many children were said to be more connected to nature, with less fear of bugs and a desire to take care of their environment. The parents we interviewed knew little about what their children do outdoors, and would like the opportunity to go with them to see how they spend their time. Despite this, parents have a positive view of outdoor learning, with many expressing that they would like their children to be outdoors more frequently and for longer periods of time.

Based on my observations, across all nurseries, children have a lot of opportunity for free play. Staff often suggest different activities, but children get the choice of whether they would like to join in or not. One fully-outdoor nursery participated, and they attempted to deliver the curriculum outdoors more so than other nurseries, giving children the chance to learn numbers or read books. Council nurseries go outdoors once or twice a week, and may use that time to let children play and focus on the curriculum on indoor days. It was apparent that different types of childcare providers (council, social enterprise) have diverse approaches to outdoor learning.

How has the studentship benefitted me?

Overall, the studentship has given me invaluable insight into the research process, from gaining ethical approval right through to data analysis. I enjoyed developing my skills in qualitative methods and believe this will lead to more opportunities, as I would not have had the chance to improve these through my studies at university alone. I am happy to have had first-hand experience of research in such a unique and developing field and I hope my contribution is of use to my supervisors and their future work.

For further information about the study and final analysis results, please contact Dr Anne Martin.

Jessica Kenny was awarded a studentship by the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF). 

First published: 14 August 2019

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