Multicase study of nature-kindergarten practices: exploring three examples in Denmark, Finland and Scotland.
Nugent, Clare Lorraine
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Nature kindergartens are a type of early-childhood education that, relative to other settings, are based outdoors, season-round. They are founded on the belief that direct and immediate experiences with ‘quotidian nature’ (Kahn & Kellert, 2002, xvii) are beneficial in early childhood. More commonplace in Nordic nations and Germany, nature kindergartens are more recently evident worldwide and, hence, timely to research them. By evidencing a descriptive account of ‘nature kindergartens’, this study sought distinctions and commonalities between examples to inform why practice may look the way it does. Existing knowledge presented an opportunity to explore why sharing a label does not infer similar practice arrangements. With its social constructionist lens, this inquiry considered how patterned behaviours and socialised practices (embedded in adults and emergent or developing in children) might guide variations in nature-kindergarten practices. Theoretical tools, namely Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus and Heft’s (1988) version of affordance theory, are used to endorse the position that the use of nature environments for early-childhood education are subject to wider considerations. Using these concepts, nature-kindergartens practices, including that which was seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched by participants were interpreted for the ways different groups construct season-round relations with nature. The research design and questions were established using preliminary investigations or ‘scoping’ of 15 nature kindergartens in six countries ahead of the selection of three case settings: one Danish case, one Finnish and one Scottish. By ‘looking between’ in preference to comparison, the inquiry extends our understanding of nature kindergarten as sites of social and cultural construction, where educational practices cannot be disjoined from their wider societal, cultural and natural influences. The multicase study (Stake, 2006) framed the collection of data through time-sampled observations, interviews and conversations with adult and child participants. Other peripheral data, including photographs and field journals, were collected. The author shared 53 days with participants at the three case locations and coded the observed practices using thematic analysis (Boyatzis, 1998). Children’s own words, metaphor, poem extracts and colloquial phrases have been used to further contextualise the writing. The study findings describe nature kindergartens as a distinctive form of early-childhood education through evidencing locally relevant relationships with nature. For those under study, spending a preschool year variously shivering and sweating, exhausted and exhilarated, eating berries and eating snow evidenced differences and similarities in season-round relations with nature. This study, by deepening our understanding of nature-kindergarten practice, evidences how socialised practices can play a constitutive, rather than causal, role in practice looking the ways it does. Together, the findings contribute a foundation for the early-childhood education and outdoor-learning fields to place increased emphasis on the role of nature kindergartens in lifelong relations with the outdoors. Longitudinal and multicase research in this area is of great interest, yet currently sparse.