Research Summary

'Mud in my ears and jam in my beard': Challenging gendered ways of being in nature kindergarten practitioners

Natural surroundings may promote teacher behaviors that are less binary than traditional male/female roles

International Journal of Early Years Education
2019

This study investigated how nature kindergarten educators interacted with their students and the natural environment. The aim of the study was to better understand the extent to which the behaviors of teachers in nature kindergarten tend to follow traditional male/female roles.

This study was conducted with nature kindergarten teachers in three countries: Denmark, Finland and Scotland. Children in nature kindergartens spend entire days outdoors with their teachers in all kinds of weather. While females tend to outnumber males in the early childhood education profession generally, there are a growing number of men teaching in nature kindergartens. Very little research has been done on how children’s educational experiences differ by gender of the teachers. This study sought to better understand if there is a difference.

Researchers conducted 53 observations of the participating kindergartens over the 16 months of the study. They also conducted 12 interviews with kindergarten teachers (five male and two female). A systematic protocol consisting of three-minute scans at half-hour intervals was used for the observations. Data collected during these observations included location, interactions, and participant engagement with multi-sensory qualities of the forest settings. The interviews, conducted after the observations, were recorded. Both the adults and the children were given opportunities to review and comment on the accurate representation of the data. In analyzing the data, the researchers looked for patterns in the educators’ practice, dispositions towards nature, influences on career choice, and on the experiences of children.

Results showed that “the process by which the children acquired skills both affirmed and disrupted normative gendered associations”. Both male and female teachers engaged in “a plurality of masculinities and femininities without hesitation or apparent compromise to their self-worth.” They used specific places in the forest as locations for learning and teaching, and linked what the environment provided with the content of the learning experiences. The practice of linking features of the local environment with learning experiences is central to nature kindergarten pedagogy.

Data from the observations and interviews indicated that both the male and female nature kindergarten teachers challenged norms often associated with gender and ways of being in early childhood education. The findings also suggest that “natural surroundings may provide norms of behaviour that are less binary than traditional male/female roles.”  These findings are new to the early childhood education and nature-based learning literature and thus make an important contribution to the field.