This case study explored the tensions of using digital technology alongside an outdoor, sensory approach to learning (Sakr, 2020; Hughes, 2011); the effects on student learning; and the willingness to change practices. It was conducted at the University of South Wales, working with 24 early years (EY) undergraduates, and explored how both students and tutor blended digital technology with ‘outdoor learning’ approaches. It considered how this approach could support a holistic curriculum in 21st-century EY practice.
The Welsh assembly government (2009) expects all children to have regular access to the outdoor environment as part of the curriculum. The new progressive Curriculum for Wales also looks to develop skills for life where children need to ‘experience and reflect on the wonder of the natural world’. These real-life, sensory learning opportunities afford children the ‘everyday adventures’ through which they develop skills for life (Palmer, 2006, p. 60) and supports Louv’s (2009) work suggesting that people across a generation have become alienated from nature. This has implications for EY student practitioners who are trying to embrace an outdoor pedagogy to reconnect children, and to some extent themselves, with the natural outdoor environment. This alienation has been magnified perhaps by the introduction of the Digital Competence Framework, which has become a compulsory part of the Welsh curriculum.
EY students need to be digitally competent, as well as be able to support and develop children’s digital skills. As an education professional in higher education (HE), I believe the need to blend digital technology with traditional outdoor pedagogy as part of innovative learning and teaching is essential, enabling students to confidently apply blended skills in their own practice. However, within the context of the Welsh curriculum, the two approaches appear to conflict with one another. Hughes (2011) argues that digital technology can distract children from experiencing their deepest play experiences, while Plowman, Stephen, & McPake (2010) suggest that some practitioners prefer to stick to what they know is effective and refrain from using technology because it may ruin the outdoor play experience. However, Sakr’s (2020) research suggests that practitioners need confidence and willingness to change practices so that digital technology can create new opportunities to bring learners closer to nature.
‘Practitioners need confidence and willingness to change practices so that digital technology can create new opportunities to bring learners closer to nature.’
In this case study, EY students experimented with digital technology during outdoor learning sessions facilitated by the tutor. They used the iPad camera to take photos of ‘things in nature’ as well as activities they had completed outdoors with the children. They created a ‘personal learning environment’ (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012), and posted photographs using Seesaw, a secure and safe platform accessed only by the class. Students commented, ‘liked’ and created dialogue, sharing their lesson ideas using this approach. The tutor also engaged in these informal ‘sharings’ and offered feedback. This approach encouraged collaborative learning (Evans, Muiis, & Tomlinson, 2015), enabled students to construct their own knowledge, and improved confidence to try new approaches in their practice. The students viewed this blended approach as non-judgemental, which encouraged them to do things differently while enhancing their confidence. This response was also mirrored for the HE tutor, whereby innovative pedagogies not used before were employed, which changed practice (Körös-Mikis, 2009). The results of the case study challenged Plowman et al.’s (2010) proposal of ‘sticking to what we know’ and supported Sakr’s (2020) recommendation that we need a willingness to experiment in our practice to provide a valuable approach in teaching the whole curriculum.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘digital immigrants’ (Prensky, 2001) need to consider changes to traditional practices within EY so that blending these pedagogies becomes the norm and a siloed approach is diminished, thereby supporting the holistic philosophy of EY practice and the new Curriculum for Wales. This may help practitioners recognise the value in their synergy supporting a paradigm shift in EY practices, and help children reconnect with nature using 21st-century tools.
Dabbagh, N., & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal learning environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 3–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.06.002
Evans, C., Muiis, D., & Tomlinson, M. (2015). Engaged student learning: High-impact strategies to enhance student achievement. Higher Education Academy.
Hughes, B. (2011). Evolutionary playwork (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Körös-Mikis, M. (2009). Defining innovative pedagogical practice. https://ofi.oh.gov.hu/studies-articles-090617/defining-innovative
Louv, R. (2009). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2nd ed.). Algonquin Books.
Palmer, S. (2006). Toxic childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it. Orion.
Plowman, L., Stephen, C., & McPake, J. (2010). Supporting young children’s learning with technology at home and in preschool. Research Papers in Education, 25(1), 93–113. https://doi.org/10.1080/02671520802584061
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. Retrieved from https://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
Sakr, M. (2020). Digital play in early childhood. SAGE Publications.
Welsh Assembly Government. (2009). Foundation phase: Outdoor learning handbook. https://hwb.gov.wales/storage/fcb8539c-9be7-4883-8542-35d7b54b56f2/foundation-phase-outdoor-learning-handbook.pdf