Relationships between outdoor and classroom task settings and cognition in primary schoolchildren
Hamilton, Jamie McKenzie
MetadataShow full item record
While recent studies suggest an association in early years’ children between outdoor classrooms and predictors of achievement (Davis & Waite, 2005), here termed cognitive factors (affordances, attention, motivation, memory, social interaction, positive affect, physical activity and positive teacher feedback), support for performance impacts remains weak. The thesis predicts that due to a predisposition for natural affordances (Kahn Jr. & Kellert, 2002), children’s performance on a school task will be better outdoors than in a classroom, and associated with natural richness. Employing a systems-based theoretical framework informed by the Santiago Theory of Cognition (Maturana & Varela, 1992), field experiments were undertaken with 3 Scottish primary schools. Participants were mainly school starters (n=57), average age 5½ years, but included an ‘experienced’ group with 4-5 years’ regular exposure to woodland learning, average age 9½ years (n=14). Classes were split into matched groups and performed a curriculum task outdoors – in either a wood or playground – and then in a classroom, or vice versa. Settings were categorised for ‘natural richness’ using a checklist of affordances and biodiversity. Data were video recordings and, administered 6-7 months post-task, teacher interviews and a questionnaire which recorded recollections, and preferences related to performance and perceived restoration. Greater social interaction, creative diversity and movement outdoors were general task observations. Outdoor tasks were recalled more readily and in richer detail, and were preferred for all criteria, with the experienced group returning the strongest preferences. Underachievers recalled more outdoors than peers, and returned higher perceived restorativeness scale task ratings. Setting preferences exhibit a two-factor structure: perceived ‘autonomy’ outdoors is the dominant component, and ‘creative compatibility’ is associated with ‘natural richness’ and hinges on perceived compatibility, discovery and resourcefulness outdoors. A causal loop analysis of interview data implies the enabling and regulating impacts of the outdoor settings on individuals and groups, with environmental novelty, non-prescriptiveness and immersiveness implicated. Discussion suggests stronger empirical support for all cognitive factors outdoors, best summarised as a virtuous systemic interrelationship between affordance richness, functional motivation and positive interdependence, with significant implications for task performance. The research contributes new measures and approaches, and informs the case for embedding outdoor learning in the Scottish early years’ curriculum, particularly, through support for transition and underachievement.