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New App Provides New Direction for Researchers Examining How Children Learn From Nature

An iPad app is the first of its kind to be used as a research technique that examines how children respond to certain environments.

Date: 10/18/2013 10:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre (App graphic provided by PlayScape Researchers)

UC ingot   A new iPad application is showing promise in examining how young children learn through their interactions with nature.
PlayScape app

Cathy Maltbie and Katie Steedly, both research associates for the University of Cincinnati’s Evaluation Services Center, will present details on this new evaluation tool for the 21st century on Oct. 18, at the 27th Annual Conference of the American Evaluation Association in Washington, D.C.

The app is part of a National Science Foundation-supported project to examine preschool-age children’s  learning and interest in science through their explorations in natural settings, such as PlayScapes. The study locations are the intentionally designed PlayScapes nature environments set on UC’s campus and at the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Working in partnership with the Evendale-based company, Kinetic Vision, the UC researchers designed an iPad application to assist them in a research technique known as behavior mapping – a technique Maltbie says that that until now, required some level of pen-and-paper to record observations of children in specific settings. The fully digitized app allowed the researchers to identify and record behaviors of children that indicated science learning in specific locations of the PlayScapes.

Victoria Carr, a UC associate professor of education and director of UC’s Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center, is principal investigator on the PlayScape research project. “We originally proposed using tablets to collect data, but decided the iPad provided the most user-friendly platform. We knew what data we wanted to collect, but when Cathy made the connection to folks who could build the app for us, the research expanded to evaluate the use of the app itself as a unique tool for behavior mapping,” says Carr.

Arlitt PlayScape
Arlitt PlayScape

“The app helped us pinpoint popular areas in the PlayScapes, such as what the children were doing at the water features at both the UC/Arlitt PlayScape and the Cincinnati Nature Center PlayScape,” says Maltbie.

“We tracked how the children used various aspects of the PlayScapes, particularly with regard to the materials they used,” says Steedly.

The app allowed researchers at PlayScape observation points to electronically record patterns of interaction, movement, engagement and probable science learning around different points that the researchers were mapping in the PlayScapes, as well as whether the children were interacting with their peers, hanging out by themselves, or if they were with an adult. Researchers also could record how the PlayScapes enhanced fine motor skills (such as touching a plant, removing gravel) and gross motor skills (running, jumping, climbing).

The app recorded behaviors with manufactured or natural materials, fixed (such as tree stumps) or loose parts, such as mulch or tree “cookies” – round, flat pieces of wood that children are using for stacking, rolling and other forms of play. The app has checkpoints for observers to record and code interactions with water, rocks, sticks, soil, sand, mulch, plants, leaves, wildlife (birds, butterflies), tree cookies, gravel, logs, bark and other objects that the researchers can write in.

“We wanted to create a program that will plot the dots for us, to map out where the children are using the PlayScape the most,” says Maltbie. “We have up to 1,000 points recorded on each location.”

Individual observations were then sent via e-mail. Maltbie says that although there were occasional issues with connectivity, the app could not delete data. Future research will involve further tweaking on how to save the data through the iPad, as well as further analysis of the iPad app data recorded by the researchers.

Maltbie says the project involved seven data collectors observing 64 preschool-age (aged 3-to-5) children at the two PlayScapes, beginning in April 2012 through June 2013.

The majority of the development costs for the app was covered by support from the National Science Foundation. 

In addition, UC graduate student researchers on the PlayScape project were awarded a $2,000 technology grant from the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH) Graduate Student and Faculty Mentoring Program to support development of the application, in partnership with Kinetic Vision. Kinetic Vision is a company that provides full-service product development services. The company also has been an active partner with the university in providing cooperative education opportunities to UC students.

The American Evaluation Association is an international professional association of evaluators devoted to the application and exploration of program evaluation, personnel evaluation, technology and many other forms of evaluation. The conference is expected to draw more than 3,000 evaluators and features more than 875 sessions examining the field.

University of Cincinnati Evaluation Services Center

The UC Evaluation Services Center is an independent evaluation, assessment and research center affiliated with UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services.

About the UC PlayScape Partnership

The $401,000 signature UC PlayScape is a wheelchair-accessible outdoor play and learning lab. The concept was developed as part of a partnership with UC’s Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center and the Cincinnati Nature Center (CNC) to promote children’s free play in natural settings. The UC/Arlitt PlayScape is believed to be the first college campus, architecturally designed outdoor play and learning environment.

A UC research team is analyzing how the PlayScape is building an interest in science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) areas, a stewardship of nature and a passion for learning. The research is supported by a $330,124 grant from the National Science Foundation (#1114674). The NSF-funded study involves the Arlitt learners as well as an Arlitt partner, Clermont Child Focus, which, like Arlitt, has a blended Head Start program.

About the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center

The UC Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center is nationally recognized for its approach to teaching and research. Providing more than 85 years of educational excellence for children 3 to 5 years old, the center is one of the oldest and most diverse preschool programs in the United States. It was the first Cincinnati preschool staffed by teachers who were specifically trained in early childhood education. The center has a blended Head Start and tuition program, serving children of varying cultures, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds.