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The Underpinning Theories that Influence Outdoor Play

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Some educators may have an aversion to theory because it is by nature not concrete and it can be difficult to understand. Theory is theoretical. It is abstract. To embrace theory in practice is to assume the role of a teacher researcher who builds theories of teaching and learning. Teacher researchers reflect upon documentation as data and then begin to theorize. Theorizing is the “cognitive process of discovering or manipulating abstract categories and relationships amongst these categories” (LeCompte, Preissle, & Tesch, 1993, p. 239). The process calls for an abstract conceptualization of the data. It is a challenging process. It is fraught with ambiguity as it involves speculation, risk, and inference. The purpose of theory is to help teachers better understand the nature of their practice. It sounds complicated but anyone can be a theory builder. For example, children can be encouraged to express their theories about what they find in nature. Early learning teachers learn to express their theories of teaching and learning by reflecting upon and sharing their perspectives. If you click on the word theory, you will reveal it’s really simple meaning!

Theories are ideas intended to explain something. It is presented as something that could be true but it is not known for sure if it is true.

There are numerous theories about pedagogy and curriculum in the early years. Do you believe that if your pedagogical approach to learning is to teach by telling? If you do then you might decide to teach children about trees by pointing out the difference between those that are deciduous and coniferous. It would be your theory that children learn by observation and being told the right answer. If your pedagogical approach is experiential then you might plan a learning opportunity to explore the differences between these two types of trees in a hands- on way. The children would be invited to identify their own theories about why some trees lose their leaves and others don’t.  In this example, children are helped to arrive at the right answer without being given the answer. The thinking that occurs during the process of theory building is aligned with the preferred way in which children learn. Rather than memorizing the right answer, the children have been challenged to speculate, make predictions, and create theories. This skill serves them better in later problem solving and critically thinking.

While pedagogy is your approach to teaching, curriculum refers to the contents of your teaching. Curriculum answers the questions, “what to teach” and pedagogy answers the question “how to teach it”. The term programming incorporates both pedagogy and curriculum. Programming requires planning. If you think of planning purposefully in order to provoke occasions of discovery (Edwards, 1993) then you are co-constructing curriculum with children rather than imposing ideas (Hewitt, 2001).

course11-lesson1-topic1-photo1Constructivism is a theory about development that is most often associated with Jean Piaget and social constructivism is connected to Vygotsky (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009).  The theory of constructivism assumes that knowledge is acquired through active involvement with content instead of imitation or memorization of it (Kroll & LaBoskey, 1996). Piaget reaffirmed experiential learning and teaching; that in order to learn one must develop. Piaget’s focus is environmental whereas a Vygotskian perspective supports the concept that one learns in order to develop (Rodd, 1997). Vygotsky (1962) believed that the only good instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it. While Piaget viewed knowledge as being constructed from personal experiences, Vygotsky’s position maintained that personal and social experiences could not be separated. From this theory we get the concept of co-constructivism.

The term co-construction denotes the engagement that early learning teachers and children have with each other as they work and play together to find shared meaning, rather than facts. Co-construction is a term often associated with the theory of emergent curriculum. Emergent is a theory about curriculum that is used to describe how curriculum is developed. Click on the words below to learn more.

The term emergent curriculum refers to an approach that emerges from the interests of the learner and is socially constructed (Jones & Nimmo, 1994). Emergent curriculum is the umbrella term that incorporates project-based learning, inquiry and Reggio-inspired teaching and learning. For the educators in Reggio Emilia, teaching and learning becomes an art that is expressed through the use of progettazione, project curriculum constructed with pedagogical documentation (Rinaldi, 1998).

Curriculum is termed emergent when it evolves, diverging along new paths as choices and connections are made, and it is always open to new possibilities that may not have been thought of during the initial planning process. Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo wrote about the approach in the seminal book Emergent Curriculum (1994). In the book, the authors caution educators not to wrongly assume that everything in an emergent curriculum simply emerges from the children.
In the article, the Emergence of Emergent Curriculum Jones (2012) described her own experience working with young children in the 1950s and outlined the process of planning as one that was made “day to day in response to our observations and reflections on children’s needs and interests. The curriculum was set down only after it had taken place, not laid out in advance except in broad terms” (2012, p. 66). This, Jones called “emergent curriculum”. Read the article below:


While some early learning teachers may be required to identify learning outcomes in their planning and programming, the practice of emergent curriculum lends itself to beginning with the experience and identifying the outcomes afterwards. The experiences are intended to be open-ended, meaningful opportunities for children to engage their creativity and contribute their ideas. In practice, these experiences may lead to long-term projects.  It is not necessary to identify a project topic when following an emergent curriculum approach. Rather, it is necessary to give up using themes as the foundation of program planning. Although themes are still prevalent in early learning programs, they reduce children’s connectedness to contributing to programming.   They are used to define curriculum and are focused on a pedagogical approach that relates more to the learning of facts and information rather than to the co-construction of meaning and supporting children in the ideal way of learning through play based on their curiosity and interests. What does this mean? It requires early learning teachers to change their practice, move beyond themes, face resistance to change, accept cognitive dissonance, and the related disequilibrium as part of practice. It also requires the relinquishing of the status quo. Click on the words below to learn more.

A theme is usually a broad concept or topic such as seasons or animals and is often based on holidays. Themes are teacher directed and teacher owned. In theme work, children are rarely involved in posing questions to be answered or taking initiative for investigation. Outdoor play and learning is the ideal environment for children to be involved in co-construction of the curriculum. It is not always easy to move away from the theme approach when it has been part of practice of early childhood education for many years. Change is not always easy.

Change can be uncomfortable and some early learning teachers may resist change. When one embarks on a journey that will go beyond themes it is important to accept “cognitive knots” that cause real tension in our minds, hearts and bodies. The term to describe this discomfort is “cognitive dissonance”.

New ideas naturally produce tension or cognitive dissonance.  Welcoming uncertainty is key. It is okay not to be certain about the idea of using emergent curriculum in practice.   Transformative change and “genuine learning happens only through disequilibrium” (Jones & Nimmo, 1999, p. 8). Cognitive dissonance is a state of imbalance between cognitions. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these cognitions. Dissonance theory suggests that if educators are engaged in activities that arouse dissonance then there is the openness needed for the current beliefs to change.

This tension of dissonance causes disequilibrium to occur with the experience of new information. While disequilibrium is uncomfortable, the new information needs to be assimilated in order for learning to occur and for new practices to emerge. As researchers, educators can be in a position of uncertainty as they build their own theories from practice. Disequilibrium can lead to change. Change implies innovation. Innovation presumes change. The two terms are interdependent. Both terms assume newness, a difference between what was and what is. There is a sense of movement to change and to innovation, which is accompanied by a sense of excitement or apprehension.

The theme approach is often pre-determined curriculum and by nature is very different from a curriculum that unfolds. Passive acceptance of a predetermined curriculum encourages the status quo. The status quo is limiting to educators and to children. What does letting go of the status quo mean to you in your practice? It may mean that you go beyond interests when planning for emergent outdoor experiences.

The Theory of Progettazione

The Reggio Emilia Approach refers to an innovative approach to early childhood education that began in Reggio Emilia, Italy shortly after the Second World War. The theoretical underpinnings for the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education are the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the approach, in conjunction with parents and other educators, developed a system of education for young children that is transformational for both the teacher and the learner. He is quoted as saying, “creativity seems to emerge from multiple experiences, coupled with a well-supported development of personal resources, including a sense of freedom to venture beyond the known” (Malaguzzi, 1998, p. 76). For Malaguzzi, the central notion for the philosophy of Reggio Emilia resides in the concept of images. The image of the child is one where children are seen as strong, competent, intellectual builders of theories (Kashin, 2008). Those who are inspired by this approach believe in children’s capacity and competency. The outdoor environment supports this image of the child.


Reggio educators use the term Progettazione to describe curriculum. Click the word to uncover the meaning behind the term.

Progettazione means to project to the next steps – to collaboratively construct in the process of experiences and projects/inquiries/investigations. Pedagogical documentation serves as the means to keep the process going. The curriculum is emergent.

As researchers, early learning teachers can be in a position of uncertainty as they build their own theories from practice. Education is, according to Malaguzzi (2001), a “situation of research, and the research produces a new pedagogy” (p.6). Pedagogical documentation supports early learning teachers to see the possibilities in children’s inquiries. Making learning visible brings to light the complexities of children’s thinking. When early learning teachers engage in the process of thinking about this thinking (metacognition) it will generate ideas for further outdoor play experiences.

The Theory of Inquiry

Schon (1992) considered the theory of inquiry as John Dewey’s legacy to education.  Dewey espoused what is now considered constructivist theory as he emphasized the significance of experience in learning. Dewey (1916) stated, “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (p. 46). He advocated for and used “the project method” and laid out four criteria for projects, which are as relevant today as they were more than 100 years ago. Projects must:

  • Be of interest to children;
  • Involve thought;
  • Evoke curiosity and lead children to new areas; and
  • Entail an extended period of time for investigation (Wolfe, 2000, p. 197).

Click the word to uncover the meaning behind the term.

Inquiry is not “simply answering questions or getting a right answer. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit, and study. It is enhanced by involvement with a community of learners, each learning from the other in social interaction” (Kuklthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007, p. 2).

Gandini and Edwards (2001) suggested that the cycle of inquiry begins with framing questions. For example, what interests you about the children’s outdoor play? Start with a question or a number of questions and focus observations to seek answers to this question or questions. After interpretation and analysis of the documentation collected from the observations, reframe the questions, plan and respond.