How many times have you walked by early learning and child care programs and kindergarten programs with chain link fences, where children come running to see you? Or have you ever observed children putting their tiny hands under the fence to just get that one dandelion or rocks that are beyond their fence? You may see children peeking out of holes that have been made in wooden fences to see what is on the other side. You may have experienced children climbing on items inside the fence in an effort to satisfy their quest of determining what is “beyond the fence”. Now think about the types of experiences and learning children miss when their exposure to community spaces and places beyond the fence are limited?
Scientific inquiry, a sense of curiosity and wonderment, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEM), child-led play, self-activated experiences, outdoor nature and play lens, and 21stcentury skills such as critical thinking and creative innovation are phases often used to describe working philosophies, programming approaches, and environments that support children’s quest for exploration and learning. Early learning and child care professionals and students are often encouraged to use “the process of scientific inquiry to support intentionality” (Dietze & Kashin, 2019) in their approach with children and as a way to respond to children’s quest for knowledge. Yet, there is an increased focus on policies, government regulations, and practices in early learning and child care programs that lean toward confining children to fenced space. The requirements needed to take children out of the licensed or approved space is becoming so complicated that there is a danger that children and staff will not be able to experience their worlds “beyond the fence”. If our goal is to support children in connecting to their space and space, examine the natural attributes of their environments, follow their sense of curiosity and wonderment, and in becoming critical thinkers, problem solvers, stewards of their environment, new pathways “beyond the fence” are required.
Recognizing the importance of scientific inquiry, S.T.E.M., and thinking patterns and approaches to exploration, children flourish in spaces and environments that provide meaningful and experiential opportunities to observe, discover, touch, feel, smell, imagine, and manipulate items in a variety of contexts (Goldstein, Famularo, Kynn & Pierson, 2019). These are foundational skills for science. Science experiences during children’s early years contribute to their later school readiness and their interests and approaches to science related curriculum and learning (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007; National Science Teachers Association, 2014). Taking children beyond the fence offers new windows of opportunities to explore, discover, build on previous experiences, engage with new options and learn about their worlds. Beyond the fence offers different options to see, experience and manipulate natural materials, which leads them to new way of knowing, predicting, making connections, transforming, following a trajectory, and problem solving. Most importantly, children are making connections with lived experiences by engaging in a process of using their prior knowledge and experiences to the new situation. Connecting skills of past experiences with current events are important to children during their early years because the “making connections” process requires them to:
- build on their prior experiences to further construct knowledge and make meaning of their world and lived experience;
- develop deeper understanding about following their sense of curiosity, concepts, nature, and new knowledge creation; and
- learn about space, places, environments, science, and environmental stewardship and how these aspects are interconnected.
As outlined in Table 1, making connections from previous experiences to new options for learning support children in all aspects of development. As educators, we can contribute to children making connections when we intentionally offer new options for exploration in their environments, in our dialogue with them and in the materials and experiences that we extend to and with them. The richer the variety of experiences, the higher probability of children extending their connections from previous learning to their current explorations.
Posing questions and reminding children of previous experiences stimulate children’s thinking patterns of recalling the experience, reflecting upon what they did, doing a comparative analysis and determining if there are aspects of that experience that they wish to transfer to the current situation. As part of the curiosity cycle, aspects of repetition add to new ideas and perspectives (Dietze & Kashin, 2019). This process leads to advancing children’s working knowledge of connecting process in intentional and meaningful ways.
Earlier this week, I was reminded of the power that children feel when they have experiences outside of their fenced play space. I had the opportunity to accompany a group of young children to have time to explore in their neighbourhood. I initially thought that I would take a group of children to see some rocks with incredible ice formations that I had spied earlier in the week. I wanted to share my experience with the children, so as I built the children’s sense of excitement for this adventure, I thought if the timing and experience evolved as I had expected that I would introduce them to words such as translucent, volume, transparent, formation etc. This one experience could open new possibilities for language and science. But, when we are open to following children’ observations and interests, different journeys will evolve. One child became much more interested in the tree with all the holes that were near the rocks with ice.
She started by asking questions as to how the holes got there and why? As she moved closer to the tree, she wondered up loud “Who lives in those holes” and will I be able to see them if I peek in? She wondered if the creatures were in the tree for the winter and if they were sleeping. As she and some of her peers explored that tree, other children became intrigued by what they called the “furry tree”. One child identified that the furry tree had fluff on it just like the cattails that they had experienced on a previous adventure beyond the fence. When I heard the child do the comparison of the fluffy tree to cattails, I was reminded of the importance of facilitating opportunities for children to connect to previous discussions, experiences, and places. As I returned to have discussions with the children at the tree with the holes, I asked them if they recalled exploring trees in this same area during the summer. After a bit of silence, the child who had first expressed an interest in the tree with the holes, identified the time when they went on a “touch the bark adventure”. Like Mia in the photo, she discussed how they touched the tree, took photos of it, did rubbings on it and then returned to it later to leave a storyboard (that they had covered to protect it from the weather) about their adventure with the tree for those who follow to read.
This recent experience of taking the children beyond the fence reinforced three key learnings for me. The first is that children’s depth of observations and exposure to science, land, place, and space are much richer outside the fence, than inside confined space. Second, supporting children with making connections to previous learning or experiences is how they draw upon knowledge from those previous experiences to use to hypnotize and determine how to draw upon past experiences to combine with their new observations and ways of thinking. This approach contributes to their investigations being more intense and meaningful. Finally, by not addressing barriers of taking children outside the fence, children’s options to follow their sense of curiosity, wonderment and learning about their space, place, and world in which they live is compromised. Making connections is part of them building their self-regulation, self-confidence and being an active learner. Children need options for exploration, making connections and creating their own theories about their experiences. The more stimulation children have in their outdoor environments, the more likely they will make connections to a place and be attached to that space and place. This is the beginning of children identifying spaces that they feel good about, and where principles of STEM, environmental stewardship, and sustainability, occur.
- Dietze, B., & Kashin, D. (2019). Outdoor and nature play in early childhood education. Pearson Canada Incorporated.
- Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W. (Eds.). (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8 (Vol. 500). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
- Goldstein, M., Famularo, L., Kynn, J., & Pierson, E. (2019). Researching a New Pathway for Promoting Children’s Active Outdoor Science Exploration in Urban Settings. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 11(2), 101-119.
- National Science Teachers Association. (2014). NSTA position statement: Early childhood science education. Retrieved from http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/earlychildhood.aspx