Grant holder
Dr Tansy Watts, Canterbury Christ Church University UK
Project status

This research aims to examine the opportunity provided by contemporary social conditions, in which children’s access to natural spaces is now often in the company of adults.

Project summary

There is a contemporary concern about children’s loss of contact with the natural world and its associated benefits. Children’s reduced independent mobility is an influential factor and there is growing recognition of an interdependence between child and adult in accessing outdoor play.

This research explores a gap in literature through considering impacts on adults in sharing outdoor experiences with children. A Froebelian holistic perspective has been foregrounded within this due to its understanding of child, adult and natural environment relations according to their mutual benefit. This has been investigated though a suburban preschool’s organization of family trips to local natural environments. Twelve participant families with children between two and four years old have formed the focus of research activity. A sensory ethnography approach has framed use of child-worn Go-Pros™ on trips and this footage has formed the basis for sensory elicitation interviews with adults. Fifteen hours of Go-Pro™ footage have been reviewed along with eleven hours of audio-recorded parent reflections. Analysis of these materials has drawn upon a vocabulary of holistic relations offered by the theory of the evolution of human consciousness (Gebser, 1949). This vocabulary gives equal value to the relational qualities expressed by adult and child (Chawla, 2002) and offers a lens through which to consider Froebelian pedagogical relationships. Findings have highlighted the potential for children to draw adults into immersive sensory experiences, big questions, and storied relations with their immediate surroundings. This can balance an adult potential to draw children towards a capacity for abstract relations with a whole or global context. Each can be considered significant in forming rich, thick, continuous connections between individual and whole and can align with sustainability thinking in a need to act local but think global. Froebelian philosophy may now offer a source of guidance towards an education for sustainable development through a path of familiar early years practices revitalized by a holistic logic.

Research design

An interpretivist paradigm is been used for considering the holistic relations between the human subjects, with a consciousness that “interprets experience and events” (Wisker, 2008, p69), and their environment. Insights have been gained through data in the form of “transactional knowledge” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011, p92), and include pre-and post-programme questionnaires to explore the potential for changes over time. Observations have been carried out during visits, which draw upon Izenstark & Ebata’s (2016) Family-based Nature Activities Framework and Beery & JØrgensen’s (2018) analysis of embodied experience in nature. These will capture ‘thick descriptions’ (Gertz, 1973) of the behaviour, activity, movement, mood and temporal and spatial factors evident within child, parent and environment interactions. Small ‘focus-group’ meetings after the event have been used to develop an interactional level with families.

Key findings

1. Contemporary insight has been offered into Froebel's holistic philosophy. This has been described in terms of a 'spherical law' (Liebschner, 1992) that connects individuals through a continuity of relations with the wider life of which they are a part.

2. The aspect of pedagogy in focus in this research includes the relationship between child, adult and natural world understood in terms of its scope for mutual benefit. This can be understood as underpinned by a holistic paradigm.

3. Insight into this understanding of pedagogical relations has been supported through empirical evidence demonstrating the potential for young children to draw adults into immersive sensory experiences, big questions and storied relations with immediate surroundings.

4. Current conditions understood in terms of barriers to children's nature contact can be reconceived according to opportunities within and through them. This is through an understanding of the potential for children and adults to support each others capacity for holistic relations within an ongoing state of living development.

5. This research has demonstrated the potential offered by emerging research methods such as sensory ethnography in exploring holistic perspectives.

The full e-thesis for this project is available here

Research documents

Froebel Trust Tansy Watts Ph D Final report