Research Summary

Social contexts of development in natural outdoor environments: Children’s motor activities, personal challenges and peer interactions at the river and the creek

Unstructured natural environments offer more personal challenges than semi-structured natural environments.

Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning

For this study, a group of eleven preschoolers (ranging in age from 33 to 59 months) was observed in two naturally provisioned outdoor environments over the course of ten months: a creek adjacent to the preschool and a river in a local state park. The purpose of the study was to examine ways in which these two natural environments influenced preschoolers’ physical and socioemotional development. While both the creek and the river were natural areas, there were differences in the affordances they offered. Affordances were defined as what a given environment ‘invites’ an individual to do. The creek provided a semi-structured environment in that, in addition to the natural elements, it included such built structures as bridges, a boardwalk, and a rope swing. The river, on the other hand, was a natural unstructured area and included such elements as large rocks and a rough path. Both environments offered affordances which encouraged a multitude of physical and play behaviors.

Data collection included over 50 hours of videotaping of the children as they played at the river and at the creek. In analyzing the data, the primary focus was on environmental affordances in conjunction with motor activities, personal challenges and social behaviors. In addition to a quantitative analysis of the children’s behaviors, a case study of three children’s experiences was conducted. These case studies focused on personal challenges and positive and negative social behaviors.

Findings indicated that the two environments encouraged many of the same physical and play behaviors. The river, however, afforded more risk and personal challenges than the creek. At both the river and the creek, the children spent the most time on flat and water affordances. This was followed by climbable affordances. In each setting, there were far more positive than negative social behaviors, with the preschoolers putting far more energy into social collaboration, inclusion and helping than into competition and fighting.