Playscapes: Designed Nature Environments to Promote Informal Science Learning

Presenters: Victoria Carr, Catherine Maltbie, and Leslie Kochanowski
In theory, playing in nature is a pathway to learning science. Capturing empirical evidence of this learning, however, is challenging due to variables inherent in unstructured play, environmental disparities, and the definition of science learning for very young children. The presenters describe how they approached this research conundrum through a mixed-methods design and share results that support principles and practices for designing playscape environments that inspire play and promote STEM learning.

Victoria Carr, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education and Human Development, University of Cincinnati; Director, Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center
Victoria Carr is the executive director for the Arlitt Head Start program, executive producer for Arlitt Instructional Media, and co-founder of the Cincinnati Nature PlayScape Initiative. Carr teaches courses in the early childhood education, and developmental and learning sciences programs. She studies teacher efficacy, authentic assessment, and outdoor play. She has generated funding, including a PNC Grow Up Great with Science grant to support Head Start teachers’ learning to use nature as a venue for science curricula. Her NSF funding supports an investigation into children’s science learning in designed nature-rich environments, or playscapes. Carr serves on the Cincinnati Nature Center’s Education Committee, Kentucky 4C for Children’s Advisory Board, and Board of Directors for Milestones Therapeutic Horseback Riding. Carr has published and presented papers with regard to nature and children, challenging behaviors, assessment, and other related topics. She has co-authored Engaging Your Child in Nature Play, Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Settings: Creating a Place for All Children, and Addressing Challenging Behavior in Early Childhood Settings: A Teacher’s Guide. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and Learning and Behavioral Disorders, a master’s degree in Gifted Education, and a doctorate in Early Childhood Special Education.

Catherine Maltbie, Research Associate, University of Cincinnati
Catherine Maltbie has been a research associate at the University of Cincinnati for the past 13 years. Currently, she holds positions at the University of Cincinnati Evaluation Services Center (UCESC) and the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center. Maltbie has been the evaluator for more than 12 NSF-funded projects. As a member of the UCESC, Maltbie has coordinated evaluations for numerous projects related to K–20 education and STEM education, including the University of Cincinnati’s informal science education project evaluating playscapes’ impact on science learning. Specifically, she coordinated the development, usage, and analysis of data generated by an iPad application designed to record where and what children are doing on playscapes and the playground. Her research agenda explores ways to track children’s educational achievement from early childhood through school. Maltbie also investigates the correlation between children’s gaming activities and social and cognitive measures. Recently, she published and presented papers focused on research experiences and the professional development of inservice and preservice teachers. Maltbie is also a faculty mentor for the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Tau Beta Pi Honor Society and a mentor for the Lakota Robotics Team 1038 in West Chester, OH. She has a doctorate in Educational Foundations with a specialization in social and cognitive aspects of education, and a bachelor of science in Chemical Engineering.

Leslie Kochanowski, Graduate Research Assistant, Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center
Leslie Kochanowski is working towards her PhD in Educational Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where she has been a graduate research assistant at the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center for the past two years. In this role, she coordinates research funded by the NSF to investigate preschoolers’ informal science learning within intentionally designed nature playscapes. Her manuscript based on this research, Nature Playscapes as Contexts for Fostering Self-Determination, is in review by Children, Youth and Environments. Kochanowski’s research interests include play and creativity, intrinsic motivation and environmental psychology. In addition, she is the founder of Loose Parts Project, an organization that promotes learning through play and encourages creativity and innovation in education. Kochanowski previously taught in a blended Early Head Start/tuition-based program in Asheville, NC, where she co-led the outdoor learning initiative and collaborated with fellow educators, naturalists, landscape architects, and local colleges to improve the quality of children’s outdoor play while reconnecting them with nature. She was awarded the prestigious Gabbard Research Fellow scholarship during her master’s degree program at the University of Cincinnati.