33 SES 16, Gender in preschool education
Indoor kindergarten rooms have been found to impact on the construction of play and these environments are ‘interwoven’ with gendered materials and the physical environment itself (Borve & Borve 2017). Often teachers have been found to reinforce gendered attitudes by encouraging children to play with toys and conduct activities that are associated with their gender (Lynch 2015). Yet, if toys and activities are removed from play and the children’s learning environment alters to an outdoor space, do the children’s interactions alter? With roots in the European forest kindergarten project, a new experience for early years’ learners in the Australian context is the bush kinder. Having set out to understand how science learning occurs in the bush kinder we found differences in how boys and girls play in the bush kinder from their regular kindergarten play. We had seen boys and girls playing in the traditional Australian kindergarten, a built environment with classrooms and an adjacent play area. Like Lynch’s notion of gendered play (2015), boys would play with toy trucks and cars, in sandpits, with blocks and be kicking footballs. Girls, would be in another area, on swings or in the cubby house. The bush kinder provided none of these. Children used materials available to them to play: fallen logs, trees and loose material. Trees would become swings and fallen logs used to construct cubby houses. This was environmental learning that provided 'direct and ‘unmediated' sensorial contact with non-human others' (Greenwood & Hougham 2015: 97). The bush kinder is an exemplar of contact which provides that direct tactile opportunity for early childhood learners.
‘Forest kindergartens’ were derived from the identification of a need to address environmental learning (Walden 2012). Many hundreds of these exist in differing guises around the world (Sobel 2016). The Australian bush kinder allows for regular contact with the same setting over a set period of time. Weekly visits to the same natural environment all year-round occur, in almost all weathers. Those responsible for kindergarten provision, see the bush kinder environment as one response to the Australian Government's policy directive that four year old children are required to be provided with 15 hours of ‘quality’ preschool per week (Elliott & Chancellor 2014; Campbell & Speldewinde 2018 in press).
Since 2015 we have visited four bush kinder sites. Educator interview responses and observations allowed us to see instances where children’s play differed in the bush kinder. Boys and girls were freely playing together at the bush kinder whereas we saw play that was disparate at the regular kindergarten site. One particular example highlighted by educators was playing in the cubby house. This study uses Anggard’s (2011) work in Sweden on children’s gendered and non-gendered play in natural spaces to compare play in the outdoor and the traditional Australian kindergarten space. It investigates why the bush kinder cubby house elicits play that includes both boys and girls whereas the traditional kinder ‘playhouse’ example is, taken from our observations and anecdotal educator feedback, primarily used by girls. The research questions we sought to consider were:
1. How do boys and girls play and interact in the bush kinder and how does this differ from the traditional kindergarten setting?
2. What are the differences in play between the two learning spaces?
3. What are the contributors to this behaviour?
For the purposes of this presentation, we will provide examples of play the bush kinder and describe how these differ from play in the traditional setting. We will focus on the cubby houses in both and support this primary example with others observed, such as a game of hide and seek.
To undertake this study, the project employed mixed methods methodology (Yin, 2014). The paper forms part of a broader study on bush kinders and their place in early years learning and pedagogy. We have employed an ethnographic approach at times, becoming participant observers, taking field notes, conducting individual and group interviews both face-to-face and via email. We also employed a case study method (Stake 2005) to understand differences in sites and to conduct an analysis of different situational contexts. Our research did not incorporate the children’s ‘voice’ as we were restricted by ethics to only observe the children and collect interview data from educators and children’s parents of their child’s bush kinder experience. The field site for this study was the outdoor space of four bush kinders and in addition, once we had been made aware of the difference in how girls and boys were playing, visits to the main kindergarten site were made to observe play and confirm the educator interview responses. Ethics approval was gained and procedures put in place following the university’s Human Research Ethics protocols. Participation in the research was voluntary and signed consent by the kindergarten organisation, its teachers and its parents was provided using the University’s formats. Consent included anonymity of all participants (pseudonyms will be used to ensure that anonymity), secure and timely data storage, and rights to withdraw consent and participation. Data was collected using voice recorders and iPads during semi-structured interviews, focus groups and conversations based upon video recordings and fieldwork observations. The research method used here was also informed by a Malinowski’s (1922) anthropological methodology of participant observation and rich ethnographic description. It was impossible not to interact with the children as the observation sessions would occur over full kindergarten sessions lasting three to four hours. Being in the setting for this length of time caused the researcher to become immersed in the setting and the children’s learning experiences, as children would actively seek to draw the researcher into their play and share their discovery in the bush kinder.
In her study on children’s play in natural spaces Anggard (2011) confirmed that without gender-coding, outdoor spaces offer the opportunity for gender equity. The bush kinder confirms Anggard’s premise of natural spaces facilitating an opportunity for boys and girls to play together. We add to this early work by juxtaposing an example of play that does not regularly occur in the traditional kindergarten space but does occur in the bush kinder. Boys and girls become involved in the bush kinder cubby house from its construction. Pieces of bark and small sticks are collected and become symbols used by both boys and girls to represent the toys such a play kitchen and associated implements that the bush kinder lacks. Our work is a new consideration of Anggard’s work. We align ourselves with Anggard’s categorisation of outdoor play as ‘symbolic’ or pretend play. She (2011:27) states that her examples ‘indicate that the character of the nature environment can make it easier for girls and boys to play together and to break free from traditional gender patterns in many (but not all) play practices.’ Anggard’s examples of children pretending to be animals and superheroes, undertaking physical war-game play, lend themselves to the outdoor environment yet, here we saw boys and girls contributing to constructing and playing in a cubby house in the bush kinder. The physical objects available in the bush kinder become assimilated to ‘fit into the child’s symbolic world’ (Piaget 1962 as cited in Anggard 2011:10). The cubby house, according to our educator informants provides an opportunity to see boys and girls at play together in the bush kinder, the same boys and girls who play apart in the traditional kinder.
Änggård, E. (2011) Children’s Gendered and Non-Gendered Play in Natural Spaces. Children, Youth and Environments 21(2): 5-33. Børve, H. E. & Borve, E. (2017) Rooms with gender: physical environment and play culture in kindergarten, Early Child Development and Care 187(5-6): 1069-1081. Campbell, C. & Speldewinde, C. (2018 in press) Bush kinder in Australia: A new learning ‘place’ and its effect on local policy, Policy Futures in Education. Elliott, S., & Chancellor, B. (2014) From forest preschool to Bush kinder: An inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood 39(4): 45-53. Greenwood, D.A., & Hougham, R.J., (2015) Mitigation and adaptation: Critical perspectives toward digital technologies in place-conscious environmental education, Policy Futures in Education 13(1): 97–116. Lynch, M. (2015) Guys and dolls: a qualitative study of teachers’ views of gendered play in kindergarten, Early Child Development and Care 185(5): 679-693. Sobel, D. (ed). (2016) Nature preschools and forest kindergartens: the handbook for outdoor learning. St Paul: Redleaf Press. Stake, R.E. (2005). Qualitative case studies in (ed.) Denzin N.K. and Lincoln Y.S. The Sage handbook of qualitative research (third edition) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications pp. 443-466. Warden, C. (2012) Nature kindergartens and forest schools Perthshire: Mindstretchers. Watkins,D. & Gioia, D. (2015) Mixed methods research New York : Oxford University Press Yin, R. (2014) Case Study Research: Design and Methods 5th Ed, Sage Publications.
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