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Scholar Profile: Megan Zeni is Expanding our Knowledge of Outdoor Play Learning in Elementary Schools

Megan Zeni is a fifth year PhD candidate and sessional PHE lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, as well as a trainee with the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP). With over 25 years of experience as a professional K-7 educator, Zeni currently teaches entirely outdoors in a public school outdoor and garden classroom. 

Zeni’s research includes collaborations with practicing K-7 classroom teachers to capture how pedagogies of place and play are enacted through unstructured outdoor play and learning at school. “I am always inspired by my elementary school teaching colleagues across the country who do amazing work in outdoor play and learning,” says Zeni. “Their work is only just beginning to be captured and reflected in the research — it was important to me that their voices and expertise be made visible to help shift our perceptions of where and how learning happens in our schools.” 

When it comes to working with HELP, Zeni says that she especially loves learning with global leaders in her field of study: “I have been offered tremendous opportunities to see how a research project is built from very beginning and see it through to the knowledge translation stage. It has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling to be a part of the projects I have worked on.” 

As a graduate student working with the Play Outside Lab, Zeni is currently involved with the development of BE OUT — a new tool that will be launched by OutsidePlay.ca and will support teachers in their transition to teaching outdoors. A number of experienced teachers from across BC were involved in developing the framework for BE OUT, helping identify themes for the modules within the tool, while teachers from across Canada provided resources for the tool, such as photographs and video exemplars. “We’re not done yet, but what we have so far is very exciting and representative of how real teachers are engaging with outdoor play and learning every day with their learners across the country, in all seasons and weather!” says Zeni. 

Advocating for Equitable Access to Outdoor Learning 

When asked about the impact she hopes BE OUT will make for the wellbeing of teachers, children and families in Canada, Zeni states “my hope is that the BE OUT tool will change the conversation around outdoor play and learning in our elementary schools. We know there is a huge opportunity to ensure equitable access to outdoor play and learning for all children within the school system, so our intention is that this tool will help alleviate much of the uncertainty teachers, school leaders, and districts experience when negotiating outdoor play and learning.” Ten years down the road, Zeni hopes “every teacher in Canada considers the outdoors to be just another shared space of learning, like a library or a gymnasium, that they teach in every day.” 

Expanding on the need for equitable access to outdoor play and learning for all children, Zeni says “there is still a lot of work to do — we need advocacy at district and provincial levels to ensure mentor teachers are available to help build local communities of practice, and we need funding for all weather gear to remove barriers of access.” Zeni hopes that strategic advocacy towards increasing equitable access to outdoor play and learning will become essential work for educators and research in the future, as there is “clear evidence of the benefits for all measures of wellness in childhood when our children spend more of their days playing and learning outdoors.” 

A Greater Demand for Outdoor Learning Resources and Expertise 

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been an increased need for outdoor play and learning resources, resulting in a higher demand for Zeni’s expertise. Not only will she be the keynote speaker at both the Outdoor Learning National Conference and Farm to School Canada National Conference next month, but Zeni will also present in June at the International Play Association (IPA) Triennial World Conference in Scotland, as well participate in a symposium at the ISBNPA conference in Sweden. 

Zeni most recently co-authored the publication, Choose Your Own Adventure: Promoting Social and Emotional Development through Outdoor Learning. Early Childhood Education Journal, which is now available for reading. 

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