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Research examining benefits of outdoor learning

February 15, 2021

Dr Emily Nelson

A collaborative research project called ‘Learning in Nature’ has seen EIT and University of Waikato researchers, team up to actively explore education and nature connectivity.

The project, which also involves Predator Free Hawke’s Bay, focuses on how schools and the local community use the Ōtātara Outdoor Learning Centre, an active living outdoor laboratory on EIT’s Taradale campus below the Ōtatara Pā.

The Ōtātara Outdoor Learning Centre is an innovative collaboration between EIT, local indigenous hapū (Ngāti Pārau), central and local government agencies (Te Papa Atawhai /Department of Conservation, Hawke’s Bay (HB) Regional Council), and local environmental groups that include Predator Free HB, and EnviroSchools. Funding for this initiative was provided by the Air New Zealand Environment Trust who remain a partner in the project.

Dr Emily Nelson, who is EIT’s Programme Coordinator of the Bachelor of Teaching (Primary), is co-leading the Learning in Nature project with Professor Bronwen Cowie, Associate Dean of Research at the University of Waikato.

“As researchers we are trying to get a sense of the diverse use of the outdoor space to help gain an understanding of the values prioritised by the different user groups,” says Dr Nelson.

The first phase of the research saw interviews being held with lecturers, management and anyone involved with the development of the outdoor space.

“We questioned them on why they were interested in the space, why nature was important to them and how they saw it fitting in to their work.”

The perceived benefits were that it was promoting eco-consciousness, place-based education was connecting with the space and student teachers were getting regular exposure to outdoor education, she said.

Phase two of the project has seen it move from the participants’ starting point to an investigation into how people are using the space, using a photo voice approach.

Participants in the project at this point include staff and students from EIT’s Education and Primary Industries faculties as well as a local primary school supported in the space by Predator Free Hawke’s Bay.

The user groups are invited to take photos that represent their valued experiences, learning and nature-connectedness with regards to their time at the centre. Each participant speaks about their photos, why they took them, what they mean and what it was like learning in nature.

“The research is being done as a developmental evaluation and aims to show how the project to develop the Ōtātara Outdoor Learning Centre has taken life over time.,” Dr Nelson says.

The work will be showcased at an exhibition at the outdoor centre later this year. Each person’s photo or drawing will have a QR code which will go through to an audio recording of them talking about their work in the space.