Three boys from S2 stand beside the stream, hands gripping one another’s sleeves. Debating how safe it would be to jump, and how deep the water might be, and how slippery that slope is on the other side. Finally, one of them plucks up the courage and takes the leap, scrambling safely onto the other side. In a moment his friends follow. Nearby, a girl wafts at a wasp. Another pupil slips and muddies their knees and gets up and carries on. This is real-life risk assessment, in action. This is the cultivation of resilience.
All teachers surely recognise the benefits of outdoor learning, and yet who can honestly say they have mastered the art of it? Valid concerns can be raised regarding timing, logistics and security. But these are hindrances that we can overcome with some forward and strategic planning. In my school, the paperwork required to leave the school is already completed, and ready to print, on the shared drive. This risk assessment paperwork covers everything from injuries to allergies to altercations with big dogs; it’s all there, ready to sign and go. This means that outdoor learning can happen organically, if it suits the teacher and the pupils and the lesson.
But outdoor learning shouldn’t only take place when the sun is up, and the ground is dry. Much better to get children outside in the wind and the rain as well. To get them outside on dark winter mornings when the sun is still rising and their breath freezes in front of them. Again, this is how we create resilience, build relationships and generate challenge.
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Outdoor learning is a vital part of a child’s journey and should be recognised as such, through timetabling and staffing. Rather than being something that happens on a whim, we need to plan for it in advance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if school leaders provided time during the week, extra staff members and even emergency wellies and waterproofs, so that children could experience the outdoors in all its varieties?
Schools continue to place due importance on their commitments to retaining eco-flags and raising climate awareness. How appropriate it is, then, to take pupils out, into the natural world, to appreciate exactly what we are trying to protect. And in an increasingly fractured society, children can improve links to their local communities through the partnerships and bonds that outdoor learning can’t help but foster.
So, embrace outdoor learning. Keep a pair of old boots and a raincoat in your cupboard. This is a beautiful country full of spaces ideal for learning. Take your pupils out in the sun and the wind and the snow. Take them to write stories in a graveyard, and to read books by a river. Take them to collect traffic data on a bridge, and to sample the foliage in nearby woodlands. Just be in the outdoors, free from the tyranny of phones and selfies.
You'll find that pupils will spark up conversations and interactions that simply wouldn’t happen in the classroom. They might even have a nice wee chat with their teacher. The lessons they learn outside will help to prepare them for the challenges yet to come.
Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow