Playing, Sensing, and Meaning: An ethnographic study of children’s self-governed play in a Norwegian nature kindergarten
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Original versionSanderud, J. R. (2022). Playing, Sensing, and Meaning: An ethnographic study of children’s self-governed play in a Norwegian nature kindergarten [Doctoral dissertation]. Western Norway University of Applied Sciences
In this study, I investigate what natural environments mean for children’s selfgoverned play and how children create meaning during self-governed play in natural environments. Children’s play in natural environments is a significant scientific issue today, receiving attention from various disciplines. A growing body of studies find benefits for children’s health, motor development, perception of risk, and growth in outdoor play. Playing in and with outdoor materials, such as sticks, trees, mud, and water, has historically been a core element in many children’s play all over the world. This kind of play is often associated with a good childhood in the Nordic countries and has been an important aspect of family upbringing for decades. It is an essential part of formal pedagogical practice in Nordic kindergartens and is still emphasised in the framework plan. However, academic discourses and educational policy are important in shaping the values that teachers and politicians associate with children’s outdoor play in kindergartens. “Risky play”, “physically active play”, and educational policies emphasising more goal-oriented learning are examples of hegemonic discourses that may exert pressure on children’s self-governed play in natural environments through expectations of securing children’s health and goal-oriented learning. At the same time, we know little about what self-governed play in natural environments during different weather conditions and seasons may mean for children’s growth. The study's theoretical framework combines inspiration from the following perspectives: 1) “Dwelling” describes how people and environments are closely intertwined and mutually formative (Ingold, 2000). 2) In his Phenomenology of perception, Merleau-Ponty (2014) argues that people are first and foremost bodies in the world, and it is through the body that they experience the world. 3) By introducing the concept “affordances”, Gibson (2014) attempts to explain how elements in the environment invite people to certain movements and actions. 4) Bildung is understood not only as a lifelong acquisition of cultural and physical experiences, but also a common development of citizenship (Biesta, 2016; Gurholt, 2010; Løvlie, 2002). The project's main research question is: What does natural environments mean for children’s play and how do children create meaning during play in natural environments? To investigate the research question, I carried out two ethnographic field work periods (Fangen, 2010; Hammersley & Atkinson, 2019) inspired by sensory ethnography (Pink, 2009). The field work periods were carried out in a nature kindergarten in rural Western Norway in the winter and summer of 2018. I used participatory observation with a play-along approach (Sanderud, 2020) to understand what nature play can mean for children's self-formation. Additionally, I used field talks and a photo interview during the field work. Fangen’s (2010) three levels of interpretation guided analysis of the field work. The first level is about describing observations in detail. The second level adds relevant context(s) of the observations, what others may refer to as “thick descriptions”. The third level, finally, is about critically interpreting the participants’ needs, meanings, agendas or motives. This thesis consists of four sub-studies published as peer-reviewed articles in international scientific journals. In Article I, I developed the theoretical framework of this project, including the concept of “curious play” based on reanalysed data from my master’s project. Additionally, I developed the guiding hypothesis that curiosity is an inner driving force in children’s play. Article II provides insights into how natural environments always change due to weather, seasons, and children’s usage of these environments. Additionally, Article II provides insights into what changes in the environment may mean for children’s play, exploration, and growth during selfgoverned play in severe winter environments. Article III shows how teachers condition and facilitate the relationships inherent in children’s play with using a sensitivity towards children and places conceptualised as “didactic sensitivity”. Article IV develops the methodological approach for this project, emphasising that the researcher may play along with the children to gain insight into the play. The three main insights in this dissertation are: 1) Children playing in natural environments are curious, competent, and exploratory subjects who investigate and discover existential aspects of themselves and their surroundings. Thus, children experience meaningful situations here and now. 2) The natural environment that children play in is dynamic and partly unpredictable, in the sense that it is constantly changing under weather, seasonal variations, and the children's play itself. 3) Children embody existential understanding about their capabilities and surroundings while playing in relationships with one another and natural environments. They may experience what they can and cannot do, what opportunities they have, and how they may influence their physical and social environment. A consequence of these insights is that teachers need to consider qualities of both the particular environment and individual children’s needs and interests when carrying out pedagogical arrangements in natural environments. This study shows that children are competent and actively create meaning during self-governed play in and with natural environments and current pedagogical frameworks. This implies that teachers have to understand what relationships children find attractive to engage with.
The included articles are reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.
Has partsGurholt, K. P., & Sanderud, J. R. (2016). Curious play: Children’s exploration of nature. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 16(4), 318-329. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2016.1162183
Sanderud, J. R., Gurholt, K. P., & Moe, V. F. (2019). ‘Winter children’: An ethnographically inspired study of children being-and-becoming well-versed in snow and ice. Sport, Education and Society, 25(8), 960-971. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2019.1678124
Sanderud, J. R., Gurholt, K. P., & Moe, V. F. (2021). Didactic sensitivity to children and place: A contribution to outdoor education cultures. Sport, Education and Society, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2021.1966409
Sanderud, J. R. (2018). Mutual experiences: Understanding children’s play in nature through sensory ethnography. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 20(2), 111-122. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2018.1557058