Outdoor early childhood education as pathway to equity, health and learning

August 14, 2021

Advancing Early Childhood Education Outdoors Now, a roundtable funded by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS), engaged dialogue between researchers, practitioners and policymakers, to illustrate how outdoor early childhood education (ECE) might occur in BC. These generative roundtables addressed: 1) the importance of the outdoor ECE as a strategy to reduce COVID-19 communicable disease transmission and support children’s wellbeing; 2) international examples of sustainable outdoor ECE practice, standards and policies; and 3) identification of future policy and research directions towards legislative changes in BC for young children and early childhood educators.

Research has been steadily building on the unique benefits that being outdoors has on children’s health, development, learning and wellbeing ( McClure). When children are outside, they are more physically active and less sedentary (Brussoni). They learn to move their bodies in different ways and can experience a sense of fun, joy and freedom that is not available indoors (Mathias). They have opportunities to connect with land and nature, increasing their understanding of ecology, sustainability, and their role in the natural world. Outdoors, children learn experientially through many teachers—the trees, the animals, the sky, etc. (Alphonse).

Most young children in Canada are in some form of ECE program. High-quality ECE is linked to profound positive impacts on children’s outcomes across their lifespans and affordable access to these programs is needed to address inequities between families (Brussoni; McClure). The Canadian government has recognized the importance of universal access to high quality ECE through significant investments toward a national childcare program. British Columbia (BC) has also made investments in ECE and the current NDP government has reinforced their commitment to “enshrine” high-quality ECE in BC law.

Through play and exploration … children develop a sense of trust and comfort with their environment

– Carrie Green, University of Alaska Fairbanks

However, BC and the other Canadian provinces currently have an indoor-based ECE model, in which only buildings can be licensed as sites for ECE. This model requires investment in expensive and unnecessary infrastructure and limits the time children spend outdoors. Other jurisdictions, including Washington State and Scotland, have amended legislation to allow fully outdoor ECE programs to operate (see Mathias). Adding a category of licensed outdoor-based ECE programs in BC would increase equitable access to affordable childcare spaces, and ensure that existing programs can come under regulatory oversight. This would support the BC Ministry of Education’s early learning framework, and contribute to the health, learning, wellbeing, and safety of children in BC. Importantly, connecting children with land is an integral part of efforts around reconciliation. ECE Licensing has a responsibility to be inclusive of a diversity of approaches to ECE, including Indigenous land-based practices, through community collaboration (see Williams).

The roundtables had over 400 synchronous attendees and over 1700 subsequent views on YouTube. Organizers are currently developing “walking” podcasts that highlight these events and support ongoing discussion. The roundtables spurred creation of the Nature Based Childcare Advisory Committee, supported by Island Health Authority, and consisting of stakeholders from diverse sectors (research, licensing, early childhood education) collaborating to develop strategy and conduct advocacy.  

The initiative to license ECE Outdoor programs continues to grow and spread globally, and PWIAS played an important role in supporting this transition in BC.  Perhaps you might take a stroll outdoors and contemplate how you too might support ECE Outdoors Now and the movement to change legislation in BC to permit the development of outdoor ECE programs.

For more information, please visit the roundtable website.

ECE Outdoors Now Roundtable Organizers: Mariana Brussoni, Hartley Banack, Iris Berger, Enid Elliot, Kailee Hirsche, Shelley McClure, Belva Stone-Cole