Environment, engagement and education. Investigating the relationship between primary school grounds and children's learning: a case study from Bangladesh.
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More than 59 million children are out of schools across the globe (UNESCO Institute for Statistics and UNICEF, 2015), despite the promise of education for all children by the year 2015. The situation is more pronounced in developing countries particularly in Africa and South Asia. Strategies adopted globally to attract children towards schools rarely considered improving the existing physical environments, despite evidence that primary school aged children (five to 12 years) learn more effectively when their education is incorporated with surrounding environments (Khan & Islam, 2014; Lieberman & Hoody, 1998; Mygind, 2009). This study investigated the potential of a primary school ground to be an effective learning environment and explores how the design of an outdoor environment can contribute to children’s learning. This interdisciplinary project is underpinned by classic psychological theories of child development (e.g. Piaget, 1964 and Vygotsky et al., 1978), while Gibson’s (1979) ‘Concept of Affordance’ and Barker’s (1976) ‘Theory of Behaviour Settings’ have provided the framework for exploring the relationship between the school ground and children’s learning. A quasi-experimental action research project was carried out in a Government primary school in Bangladesh, which included the design and development of the school ground, with the direct participation of children, teachers and parents. Another primary school (with no change to the outdoor environment) was used as a control school to compare the outcomes. A mixed methods approach to conduct this quasi-experiment included data from existing exam scores, questionnaire survey, observation and behaviour-mapping, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. The key findings from this study indicate an overall positive influence of the designed outdoor environment on children’s academic performance and their motivation to learn. An increase in children’s cognitive, social and physical activities in the school ground is also evidenced by the study. The analysis of the data likewise reveals that different behaviour settings of the school ground offered opportunities for different teaching and learning activities. Both natural settings and settings with built features afforded more focused activities (e.g. gardens afforded exploration and connection with nature, while the play area afforded more functional play). Additionally, settings comprised of both natural and built elements (e.g. the area with loose materials and huts) and areas in close proximity with natural ones (i.e. the open yard) accommodated diverse and multiple teaching and learning activities (e.g. measuring, building/constructing and exploring). The findings further suggest that the design and use of the school ground had a surprising and unintended positive effect on teachers’ motivation and pedagogy. Through reflecting on the use of different landscape elements and settings in the school ground during formal outdoor classes and informal play times, the study has further come to propose some design recommendations for other new school grounds as well as the redesign of existing ones.