Into the wild: how outdoor learning can transform education

Pupils who feel confined in the classroom and view it as a place of failure often excel when lessons are taken outside. Attending Scotland’s biggest ever learning event for schools, Henry Hepburn discovers how an open-air approach can transform the educational experience – whether it’s in a woodland, a meadow or even a car park
25th October 2019, 12:03am
Outdoor Learning Can Transform Education
Henry Hepburn


Into the wild: how outdoor learning can transform education

Two P6 groups from different schools have just been confronted with the same simple task - and their responses could hardly be more different.

With Arthur's Seat looming behind them and the wind whistling though the grassy expanse of Holyrood Park, they are asked to pass a ball around in a circle as quickly as possible. The group going first "really struggles", says Sean Barry, the outdoor learning expert who set the challenge. There is "a lot of jostling and distraction", as pupils haphazardly grapple with the task, biting and curling their lips in indecision.

Then the group from the second school "absolutely smashes" the first group's time.

Barry, who runs Bridge 8 Hub, a social enterprise offering outdoor activities along the Union Canal, explains: "They just came in and huddled together, their hands were there." He holds his hands out, palms up, to demonstrate. "They reduced the diameter of the circle - and boom."

One group is from one of the most affluent parts of Edinburgh, the other is from one of the poorest. But which did better? The pupils who excelled go to school in a housing scheme that is a byword for social malaise in the city. Meanwhile, their peers' school neighbours townhouses that would set you back £2 million.

The point is this: outdoor learning can transform a child's educational experience. Suddenly, pupils who see school as a place of frustration and failure, who rail against the confines of the classroom, can find their groove - they become the sages, the leaders, the motivators.

This was a driving factor behind the City of Edinburgh Council outdoor learning team organising an event on a scale seen nowhere else in Scotland. Over two days in September, 2,400 P6 pupils from 50 schools were spread out across the 650-acre (260ha) Holyrood Park, where they sampled some of the 40-plus activities on offer.

As Tes Scotland visits, competing for pupils' attention are mountain bikes, tents, campfires, animal pelts, cross-country skis and snaking coils of coloured rope. And at the end of the first day, it is the teachers' turn: 200 have come along to try the activities for themselves.

"Nobody likes to sit at a desk all day - it's soul-destroying," says teacher Sue Russell, the health and wellbeing coordinator at Canal View Primary in Wester Hailes. Her pithy observation could be the unofficial slogan of the city's outdoor learning team, which wants to ensure that primary pupils get out and about in a way that older students have become accustomed to.

Avenues for adventure

One annual highlight for secondary students in the past five years has been the Edinburgh Schools Adventure Race, which involves teams - mostly comprising S5s - dashing around the city to take part in challenges including paddleboarding, abseiling, kayaking and orienteering. They get points for tweeting from seven designated summits, spend time puzzling over 80 quiz questions that can't easily be answered by googling, and converge on the city chambers at the end of the day when points are assigned for the distance travelled by each team.

The huge Holyrood Park event, then, is meant to create the same sort of buzz around outdoor learning, only for younger pupils - and organisers hope it could have far-reaching benefits.

Research on the long-term impact of outdoor learning is scant, but a team led by the University of Edinburgh's Simon Beames made an effort to address that. In 2018, it published the results of a 10-month project, including an online survey completed by 1,183 alumni and 235 parents of current students at Gordonstoun, the independent boarding school in Moray, whose founder, Kurt Hahn, was so keen on promoting the outdoors that he launched Outward Bound.

Beames writes: "It is undeniable that Gordonstoun's out-of-classroom experiences feature a powerful mix of novel and demanding challenges that require high levels of resolve in order to overcome." He also notes that "an astonishing 94 per cent of respondents claimed that out-of-classroom learning experiences had an overwhelmingly positive influence on their personal growth".

Many educators will testify to the power of outdoor learning. But according to Andrew Bagnall, outdoor learning development officer at City of Edinburgh Council, in practice, it is often curtailed by narrow perceptions of what is entailed. "What [schools] typically describe is off-site, adventure … it's kayaking, it's mountain biking … something you go to," says Bagnall, a former biology teacher and conservationist. Teachers also tend to believe that you need a special qualification to lead outdoor learning and to see only "tenuous" links to the curriculum. "It's not clear how that [activity] fits into what they're doing back in school," Bagnall adds.

Yet, if outdoor learning is treated as something that takes place solely away from school, predominantly on residential trips, this means it will take up only a tiny proportion of the 50,000 hours of learning a pupil experiences in 13 years at school. And that, Bagnall stresses, is officially unacceptable - because Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) demands that outdoor learning is "frequent, regular, embedded in the curriculum".

Bagnall's team is pushing the message that "the bulk of your outdoor learning should [involve] the teacher … in the school grounds or locally". And that it can use loose parts - tyres, tools, scrap wood, "almost anything, really" - and be just as effective in a car park as in a woodland or meadow. In the session with 200 teachers, one activity involved using junk to make a replica of a famous building or piece of art, or to build a robot or spaceship. What is key is that these are activities that teachers, with a little guidance, would feel comfortable running by themselves.

Outdoor learning is "not an extra", Bagnall says. "It's taking the lesson that [teachers] do inside, but taking advantage of what the outside offers." Why, for example, would you restrict learning about money to the "box in the school" - as Bagnall describes the traditional classroom - when pupils could be budgeting for a real shop and making actual purchases? That is a form of outdoor learning, he stresses: an activity that escapes from classroom artificiality and takes children into a world with real people, real challenges and real consequences.

Schools, however, remain hesitant about embracing outdoor learning, as Rachel Cowper has noted ("Why are we so reluctant to take learning into the outdoors?", Tes, 31 March 2019,,). This can be explained by a single word: risk.

Cowper, programme manager for the Thrive Outdoors fund at anti-poverty organisation Inspiring Scotland, writes: "When adults hear the words 'risk' or 'risky play', we retreat. A study from King's College London [see] found teacher confidence was a key reason children weren't playing and learning outdoors while at school: the risks can seem too high."

But this is remarkably shortsighted, Cowper argues, as everyone takes risks every day, some big and some small. "The ability to do so, to understand our boundaries and capabilities and to bounce back from failure, is a vital part of our development that allows us to learn and to navigate the risks inherent in existing," she explains.

Change is in the air

Times are changing, according to Nick March, manager of Lagganlia, one of City of Edinburgh Council's two outdoor learning centres. Run a decent outdoor programme in a school for two or three years, he believes, and the parent council will be right behind it.

In many places, the days when outdoor activities relied on a single enthusiast and came to an end when that teacher moved to another school are long gone. And in Edinburgh - unusually for Scotland - training in outdoor learning is a mandatory part of trainees' probationer year. They take part in two sessions, one near the start of the year and another towards the end.

Outdoor learning principal officer Andrew Bradshaw, a former primary headteacher who previously worked in England, says he is lucky to be in Scotland, where "you feel the power to innovate" because of CfE's emphasis on outdoor learning.

Yet there are some basic hurdles to get past: some school staff are unaware of woodland or burns replete with trout only a few minutes' walk away. So, the outdoor learning team is working on a system, using Google Earth, that will enable teachers to see where other schools have gone for outdoor learning, what is there and which activities they could do.

"Outdoor learning opens up the classroom. It's like a treasure trove," says Kirsten Mack, a teacher at Castleview Primary in Craigmillar - one of the more deprived parts of the city - who also works one day per week for the council and is helping to develop the interactive map. School, she adds, can be "overwhelming" for some pupils, but once they get outdoors, "their whole demeanour changes" and "the benefits are vast".

Some pupils' negative views of school are coloured by the bad experiences of their parents or even their grandparents, and fatalistic statements like "I'm no good at maths" are not uncommon. Outside in the fresh air, however, the pupils' despondency subsides and they are "much more in tune with what they're learning".

"I've seen kids who can't count or write a letter in a classroom, and they are identifying letters and numbers out in the woodland," says Mack. "They might be doing maths but they don't know they're doing maths - you can disguise things a lot more."

The school is even using this affinity with the outdoors to allow pupils to show off a new-found pride in where they live: they will act as tour guides for Craigmillar Castle. Staff there hope one knock-on effect will be a reduction in vandalism, as children start to feel a greater connection to their surroundings.

Back at Holyrood Park, the pupils seem undistracted by the fact that Hollywood is in town - Vin Diesel is filming the latest movie in the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the production team has commandeered a car park a stone's throw from where the outdoor learning is taking place.

Instead, children are absorbed in eclectic activities, such as poetry in the outdoors, orienteering, identifying animal skulls, setting fire to cotton wool (cue occasional panicked yelps) and mini Highland games (including caber tossing). Sometimes, though, their concentration dips - two boys peel off from a session on knot-tying to deploy their sticks as javelins and lightsabres.

'Smashing things with hammers'

In one area, overseen by someone from the National Galleries of Scotland, pupils are creating a work of art by crisscrossing long lengths of coloured yarn, then tiptoeing over what looks like a giant spider's web, like Tom Cruise trying to evade laser beams in a Mission: Impossible film. Afterwards, they will be shown pictures of artworks in the galleries and asked whether they now appreciate them in a different way.

A few hundred yards away, children are bashing various forms of plant life, then smearing whatever comes out on to a bandana that they wear proudly during their next activity. "I didn't know you could make dye out of plants," says one boy. "I love smashing things with hammers," says another.

The lack of local knowledge among some pupils is "terrifying", says Russell from Canal View Primary: mention Arthur's Seat, that potent symbol and vast shelter of Edinburgh, and you will often get a blank look - it may be less than 6 miles from the school, but that doesn't mean everyone has heard of it.

This lack of appreciation may extend to their more immediate surroundings. They may be unaware, say, of how much there is to learn and do at the apparently nondescript canal they pass on their way to school.

Russell, a teacher of 15 years, has a tinge of sadness as she recalls pupils who might have benefited from outdoor learning if given the chance. She reflects: "You think, 'That kid was really struggling and I was having a constant battle [with him] - he would have really loved this.' "

Now, she sees the outdoors as key to unlocking social skills, teamwork and problem-solving; as a place where pupils can see the tangible result of the skills they are learning when, for example, constructing a tent, given the past frustrations they may have felt doing classroom tasks that felt futile.

"Our kids find academic learning, where they're sitting down, really difficult, especially for prolonged periods of time," says Russell. "They're learning just as much here, only in a different context and a different way - it's brilliant."

Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 25 October 2019 issue under the headline "Into the wild"

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