How outdoor learning can help with social distancing

Restrictions in the coronavirus crisis have made outdoor learning more essential than ever, says teacher Natalie White

Natalie White

Coronavirus: How outdoor learning can help schools to maintain social distancing

The girl runs her finger gently over the surface of the shell and looks up at me with a smile: "Can I keep it?" 

She’s become attached to it, it’s grabbed her interest, she likes the feeling of it. She wants to keep it as a reminder of this moment.

We have just finished a literacy lesson. The shell was a key element in the story, the treasure at the end of a long adventure. As I pick up the sticks and pine cones and add them to the basket, I give the girl a nod, and she skips happily back to her group, tightly gripping the treasure.


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The children are scattered around the wooded area just the other side of the school fence, called The Ferns, in a natural green space they have claimed as their own. It's been their learning space for almost two terms, for maths, literacy, science and project work.

They’ve had a fire, sang songs, built dens, studied the wildlife, named trees and counted birds. The Ferns belongs to them – they are proud of it, protective of it: they have done litter picks and planted bulbs at the entrance. It has become somewhere they play after school and at the weekends – it’s their space and they love it.

Coronavirus: The value of outdoor learning

Scottish town planner and ecologist Patrick Geddes spoke of the "hand, heart, head" approach to encouraging ownership of, and attachment to, places and spaces: when you hold something in your hand, the tactile experience awakens you; the heart jumps in ("I like the feeling of this"); then the head asks, "What is this, where did it come from?"

This kind of authentic learning – outdoors, in local spaces, in communities, in nature – is viable for all children and young people. And, in these times, it is far easier to social distance when you have the whole woods or a football pitch to use.

As we begin to plan a return to school establishments, we are compelled to look at new ways of teaching and learning, new ways of thinking, of educating a large cohort of children under social-distancing guidelines and circumstances, which a few weeks ago would have seemed unimaginable. 

But do we need to start from scratch?

For many teachers and practitioners, learning and teaching in the outdoors is already a regular occurrence. Outdoor learning in Scotland is held in high regard by many other countries, who are envious of our forward-thinking engagement in learning for sustainability, our support policies, our teaching standards, our active networks of professionals who work in collaboration, and of our curriculum that recognises the value of outdoor learning in all subjects.

Right now, myriad organisations, charities and local authority teams are poised and ready to deliver a different sort of curriculum. Outdoor learning can give children the skills they need in the 21st century to care for themselves, their communities and their planet.

Natalie White is a principal teacher and development officer for outdoor learning, based in East Ayrshire, Scotland. She tweets @natsywhite

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