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. Froebel’s educational principles are underpinned by a vision of ‘life unity’ in which the human being is understood as part of the larger whole of their human community and natural environment. For Froebel, the natural world offers a source of guidance for the human being, and young children’s developmental stage a particular relationship to this source. Froebel described the young child as having a drive to “know the inner nature of the thing” (Froebel, 1885, p73), and his pedagogy embodies the benefit of listening to children:
“Play truly recognised and rightly fostered, unites the germinating life of the child attentively with the ripe life of experiences of the adult and thus fosters the one through the other” (Froebel, cited by Liebschner, 1992, p24).
Contemporary research offers support for the relevance of Froebel’s guidance for today. Chawla (2015) identifies contemporary social conditions in which children now take it for granted that they will be watched during outdoor play, and asks “Can children’s playfulness and curiosity influence what their caretakers notice and feel?” (Chawla, 2015, p446). Hyun (2005) has identified how children’s ‘sensory-directed’ perceptions can facilitate adults in stepping outside of their own thought and experience-mediated perceptions, and asks “what do we adults need to learn from young children to respond to biophiliac ways of exploring and understanding nature?” (Hyun, 2005, p208).
Paying attention to Froebel’s call to “Come, let us live with our children” (Froebel, 1885, p89), may now offer an important signpost towards children’s voice within the current sustainability movement.
Malone and Waite (2016) have identified inequitable access to the benefits of natural environments for those from areas of high deprivation, and education as a means to address this. Within this research process, a programme of visits to local natural environments will be organised through a pre-school, to explore their impact on the interrelationships between children, families, community and their local natural environment, as an exploration of Froebel’s pedagogical philosophy.
An interpretivist paradigm will be 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 will be gained through data in the form of “transactional knowledge” (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011, p92), and will include pre-and post-programme questionnaires to explore the potential for changes over time. Observations will be carried out during visits, which will 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.
A more intensive focus will then be developed at an interactional level with families at small ‘focus-group’ meetings after the event, in which there will be access to natural resources from the site, and will aim to capture “open, spontaneous, fluid dialogue in a group context” (Finlay, 2014, p1). Parent reflections on the visits will be sought, aiming “to ‘see things from the member’s point of view’” (Denscombe, 2007, p82) as an investigation of Froebel’s assertion of the value of adults shared attention with children.
Findings will be considered in relation to both Froebel’s philosophy and contemporary post humanist thought that “acknowledges the complex and adaptive placement of the human within the other-than-human world, which includes animals, plants, and things.” (Roelvink and Zolkos, 2014, p47).