Outdoor learning, whatever your environment

Outdoor learning, Clifton Lodge

Schools in urban areas often feel that outdoor learning isn’t for them. But Robin Davies, Assistant Director of Education for Europe, explains how even students in inner cities can benefit.

It’s long been accepted that encouraging children to get out of the classroom into the great outdoors is beneficial. The idea that letting children experience nature at close quarters, allowing them to get their hands dirty and acquainting them with their environment has never been a difficult proposition to sell.

This widely held idea has increasingly been backed up with educational evidence. According to the National Child Development Study, a longitudinal piece of research that tracks almost 10,000 people born in 1958, children who belonged to the Scouts or Guides were about 15 per cent less likely to suffer anxiety even at the age of 50. Other studies have discovered more immediate benefits. Outdoor learning can reduce attention deficit disorder and rates of myopia among children, support wellbeing, enhance creativity and increase memory.

Accessing the great outdoors, however, is not so easy for schools in built up areas. Which is why residential schools have become popular. They foster children’s engagement with learning by showing them why what they learn at school is important. And for inner-city children they give them an experience of the countryside many will not have had before.

Excellent though residential schools are, however, they have one obvious drawback – most schools can only access them infrequently and some not at all. Moreover, if a school’s idea of developing character is based solely on a week away at an outdoor centre, Ofsted and others could well ask what it is doing to support and nurture it for the rest of the year.

Outdoor learning done well should not be a flash in the pan – and it can be done well in cities as much as in the countryside. To inculcate wellbeing and develop academic potential, whatever is learnt outside has to be linked back to what is learnt inside. There has to be a seamless weave between the activities children pursue outdoors and the curriculum taught in the classroom, otherwise whatever benefits students derive can be easily lost.

At the heart of outdoor learning is a paradox – the opportunities are endless, however, the curriculum’s learning objectives can be prescriptive and finite. Ideally teachers should take the opportunities offered when they arise – if it’s a sunny day, out into the playground their class can go. However, to be effective this seeming spontaneity should be planned. Everything teachers do outdoors or on a trip should be aligned to their students’ learning, otherwise back in the classroom the lessons learnt just fizzle away. This means teachers have to plan beforehand what they wish to teach. It also means the SLT have to be astute enough to oversee the full framework of trips across year groups and subjects to ensure a tightly woven fabric of learning.

In urban areas planning can require more negotiation and creativity – transport is more complicated, open areas are less accessible. But they do exist. Teachers may not be able to go the full Bear Grylls in Ealing, Yardley, or Hackney – but they can usually access local parks. They can organise a trip to a museum or to a theatre or even the local post office. If that isn’t always an option, they can use outdoor learning nearer to home. They can ask their children to measure plants in the school garden if they have one, or to read Macbeth in the playground as it was originally performed – in the open air.

Of course, outdoor learning, especially for older students, often falls victim to curriculum pressures. But if it is seen as a necessary complement to the curriculum rather than an accessory to it, and even better, hitting learning objectives from two or three subjects at the same time, it becomes a lot easier to do.

At its best, outdoor learning contextualises theoretical learning. Maths students trying to understand volume, for instance, will most likely learn it better if they are allowed to measure water in containers in the playground. And that lesson can be learnt as easily in London or Manchester as it can in Surrey or Hampshire.

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