How do adult child interactions in the outdoor area impact on pupil outcomes in writing?

By Cigdem Duztepe


This project has been conducted to measure the impact of adult child interactions in the outdoor area, on pupils progress and its consequent effect on developing pupils writing.

The reason why the project has been based on this area was due to the plateau in the number of pupils leaving Reception with ‘exceeding’ in the last couple of years. Data highlighted that during the academic years 2015-2016 and 2014-2015, 20% of children were ‘exceeding’ in writing when they left Reception.

School Context

The school is a mixed, community school situated within an outer London borough in England. The age range of pupils is from 3-11 years and there are 705 pupils on roll. The School’s last Ofsted inspection was carried out in January 2014 and received ‘good’ on overall effectiveness, which was an improvement from the previous inspection of ‘satisfactory’ in June 2012. The report highlighted that to be an ‘Outstanding’ school, it requires the most able children to be challenged, as well as a focus on developing the EYFS so that children are able to achieve their full potential in their language, literacy and communication skills.


Ethnographic Research

‘Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” – Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular group. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture to then sense the underlying problems.

Action Research

In schools, action research refers to a wide variety of evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses – whether organizational, academic, or instructional – and help educators develop practical solutions to address them quickly and efficiently (

Action research may also be applied to programs or educational techniques that are not necessarily experiencing any problems, but that educators simply want to learn more about and improve. The general goal is to create a simple, practical, repeatable process of iterative learning, evaluation, and improvement that leads to increasingly better results for schools, teachers, or programs.

Action research may also be called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry, since it typically follows a predefined process that is repeated over time.

A simple illustrative example:

  • Identify a problem to be studied
  • Collect data on the problem
  • Organize, analyze, and interpret the data
  • Develop a plan to address the problem
  • Implement the plan
  • Evaluate the results of the actions taken
  • Identify a new problem
  • Repeat the process

A review of research which informed this study

With a growing increase on recent traumatic events that are taking place around the world, parents are becoming more reluctant to the idea of sending their children outdoors to play. There are also a number of other reasons which have an impact on parental concerns of children playing outdoors such as, working parents being unable to supervise their children therefore leading to a significant rise in numbers of children spending time indoors and in front of the television or tablets/computers. In addition to this, there are the steaming budget cuts, which continue to slash funding of the maintenance and development of public parks and outdoor space availability. White & Stoecklin (1998) have called this: the ‘childhood of imprisonment’.

The research found that experiences in the wilderness and natural areas promoted good physiological and psychology health and a reduction of stress levels. They found that “children’s instinctive feelings of continuity with nature are demonstrated by the attraction children have for fairy tales set in nature and populated with animal characters”. This has been called Biophilia: The love of outdoors – the term biophilia has been used in their study to refer to this innate, hereditary emotional attraction of humans to affiliate with nature and other living organisms. However, they found that if our natural attraction to nature is deprived of these experiences during the early years of life, the opposite may develop: biophobia, an aversion to nature, which ranges from discomfort in natural places to active scorn for whatever is not man-made.

In relation to this, extensive studies have been carried out in recent years to highlight the impact of outdoor learning on developing children’s health and wellbeing. Such as an improved motor fitness, balance and coordination and their creativity and thinking skills (Fjortoft 2004). Following on from this study, evidence based research has been carried out which confirms that good physical health and wellbeing that is promoted by outdoor learning also helps pupils achieve higher results in knowledge and skill acquisition, social skills and interactions in new and different ways with their peers and adults, as well as improved attention, enhanced self-concept, self-esteem and good mental health (Dr. K. Malone, 2008).

During the ethnographic stage of this study, it became evident that there was a lack of adult child interactions in the outdoor area, which meant that there was less evidence being captured of pupils developing their physical skills. This lead to further research being carried out into developing effective pedagogical skills in the outdoor area. in order to develop practitioners knowledge and understanding to enhance their pedagogy, the Movement Environment Rating Scale (MOVERS) model was adapted at the setting (Archer & Siraj, 2017). The action-based research was carried out to find out whether a professional development intervention around ‘movement-play’ resulted in an improved environment and movement experiences. They identified the five areas of early childhood development linked to MOVERS and how to enhance them through the following strategies:

  1. Physical development: Through the development of gross motor skills and body movement to support fine motor skills.
  2. Communication and language: Through supporting and extending children’s movement vocabulary and encouraging sustained shared thinking by communicating and interacting through physical activity.
  3. Self-regulation: Through staff engagement in movement with children indoors and outdoors.
  4. Cognitive development: Through supporting children’s curiosity and problem-solving indoors and outdoors.
  5. Social and emotional development: Through all the strategies noted above.

An overview of actions

The project was conducted in a Reception setting over a year. Following on from informal discussions with the Early Years practitioners in the setting, it became evident that some practitioners lacked understanding in two areas:

  • The relevance and impact of outdoor learning on children’s language, literacy and communication skills.
  • Developing effective shared sustained thinking and relationships between adults and children in the outdoor area.

Continued Professional Development sessions were carried out with all the Reception class practitioners. The training sessions consisted of:

  • Sharing evidence-based research with the team, about the importance of outdoor learning on children’s physical health and wellbeing and its consequent impact on the other areas of learning such as communication, language and literacy skills.
  • Sharing exemplification materials to develop practitioners’ understanding of end of year expectations.
  • Teaching practitioners about effective pedagogical skills and identifying opportunities to apply learning theories to our practise outdoors.
  • Modelling interactions adult child interactions outdoors.

In addition to developing effective pedagogical skills and strategies, the practitioners were trained to use Blatchford’s Shared Sustained Thinking questioning techniques during their interactions with children outdoors.

  • Asking open ended questions
  • Sharing and sustaining thinking
  • Tuning into the child’s learning by listening, watching and observing
  • Showing genuine interest
  • Respecting decisions made by the child
  • Inviting children to elaborate
  • Re-capping
  • Offering out your own experience
  • Clarifying ideas
  • Suggesting alternatives
  • Reminding
  • Encouraging
  • Speculating
  • Modelling thinking through spoken internal dialogue

Whilst moderation and evaluation of adult child interactions were taking place, the Reception timetable had also been adjusted so that more adults are present outdoors and there is an increased time allowed for children to explore the outdoor area with less interrupted sessions in their play.


During the academic years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 there was a plateau in the number of children who left Reception as ‘exceeding’ writers. Not only did the study have an impact on writing but there has been a significant impact on the number of children ‘exceeding’ in communication, language and literacy skills which was highlighted in the schools 2014 Ofsted inspection report.

The impact of the study in comparison to the last two years is displayed below:

Table 1

In addition to the data presented above, there was some qualitative data collected and shared with all the Early Years practitioners, which highlighted the impact of adult child interactions in the outdoor area. This was collected from the ethnographic study conducted with other schools in GHPTA.

See some examples of feedback from Early Years practitioners from other settings:

 “Good evidence of effective adult child interactions and excellent provision in the environment”

 “Adult interactions were timely and purposeful indoors and outdoors. Some of the interactions on their own were as high quality as the interactions with adults”.


One of the major implications faced during this project was changing practitioner’s perceptions on the importance of outdoor learning. It was identified that adults didn’t share the same value in the importance of engaging with children in the outdoor area. During outdoor sessions practitioners generally focused on monitoring the safety of children instead of high quality interactions and collecting evidence.

In order for this model to work, practitioners need to be engaged with developing the strategies identified in their interactions with children outdoors. Therefore, regular CPD sessions need to be delivered across the setting.


Before implementing this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Use evidence based research to ensure that your practitioners understand the values of outdoor learning.
  2. Ensure that regular CPD sessions are delivered to update and refresh knowledge and understanding of effective pedagogical strategies
  3. Think about facilitating your team to take ownership of the project to continue leading it to further enhance the desired outcomes.