Taking the classroom outdoors should be a permanent part of school life
As the UK’s roadmap to re-open the country continues, we see children return to their previous outdoor interests, school trips resume (day and residential), and outdoor education centres being brought back to life. Pat Milston, Programmes Director for Cognita’s Active Learning Group, says this welcome return to an education beyond classroom walls brings with it notable benefits for children’s development, behaviour and wellbeing.
We must learn from the nation’s renewed appreciation for the outdoors and make outdoor education a permanent part of school life. While technology kept students learning during lockdown, resetting how children learn and teaching them how to balance the benefits of technology with the outdoors is now critical.
My experience over the years has taught me that taking learning outside is powerful; the informal environment brings with it freedom and a safe place to develop independence and test boundaries. Equally, the positive effect that the outdoors can have on an individual’s wellbeing is well-evidenced. It is for these two reasons that I would like to see schools seek to permanently broaden their outdoor classroom in some form.
To me, the outdoors experience is all about building relationships and engaging with students in a different way; this can be the key that unlocks them as people. They love to show you what they can do. It builds trust and understanding and – aside from the chance to develop social skills – they learn more about themselves, become more independent and can translate new-found strategies into fresh focus back in the classroom. I’m convinced that, during my time as a teacher, getting to know students better and following outdoor learning experiences of all types meant I was able to get more out of them back in school.
It’s not just students that benefit. Teachers can grow in just the same way as the students – no-one is too old to learn new skills and to develop their confidence. A 2019 study from Swansea University revealed that as little as one hour’s outdoor learning a week can boost teachers’ job satisfaction.
The wellbeing advantages of connecting to nature are firmly established, as supported by this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme ‘Connect with Nature’. Learning outdoors can foster creativity, develop empathy and tolerance, and encourage cooperation while the natural environment relieves stress and induces calm. Feeling connected to a larger environment can help put problems in perspective. Recent lockdowns have reinforced the need to look at alternative ways for students to receive the benefits of an outdoors education. There are so many ways in which schools and curriculum-based lessons can encourage this connection with nature – if not during school hours, then perhaps as an added exercise for taking home over the weekend. Ultimately, one day outside is always better than nothing.
Outdoor Classroom Day is an initiative to be celebrated. Following events this year, now is the time to embrace an extended outdoor classroom for the foreseeable future.