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Lesson al fresco

Andrew Mourant shows how a teacher's innovative outdoor learning programme inspired colleagues, and gave pupils a taste of adventure

In a damp wood, rain dripping from trees and bruise-coloured clouds threatening more showers, Cornish children lie on their backs, close their eyes and listen in near silence. One believes he can detect a beetle rustling the leaves. They all hear woodland birds, a pheasant's squawk and, closer to Caerhays Castle, the mew of a peacock.

Earlier they were ferreting around the woodland floor, each clasping a magnifying glass collecting odds and ends that caught their fancy. "But don't get anything out of the ground," says Helen Blackburn, the group leader, who then asks "Why not?"

"Because it's a living thing," they murmur. The Roseland Peninsula - woods, fields, folding hills tumbling to the sea - is a natural playground. Yet for most reception and Year 1 children from two local primaries, Gorran and Gerrans, this is their first taste of the wood.

The day begins in Helen's alfresco classroom, where the children sit on a circle of logs and recall the five key senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. Helen, who is a PE teacher at Poltair Community School and Sports College, in St Austell, was inspired to take learning outside by a magazine piece entitled: "If you go down to the woods today."

It led her to evolve the concept of Outdoor School - "An opportunity for young people to develop a sense of adventure."

All nine primaries in the Roseland cluster, for which Helen is school sports co-ordinator, wanted to try it. Last year's pilot was funded by the New Opportunities Fund. Feedback was good and led to broadening the scope.

As a result, Outdoor School now has two spheres: Call of the Wild, which is off-site, and Outdoor Learning, within school grounds.

The Outdoor School contingent will make log trails, learn how to build and light a fire, play hide-and-seek and blindfold and camouflage games, make bows and arrows, do a caterpillar walk and go barefoot exploring. "I read through all areas of the curriculum for key stage 1 and felt it possible to teach science, maths, art and design and music outdoors," says Helen.

The children start by donning waterproof over-trousers, as getting wet and muddy is part of the experience. Then Helen leads them off to mark the boundaries of their domain by tying coloured feathers to trees.

Schools taking part are scattered around the sparsely populated Roseland peninsula, where distance is exaggerated by tortuous lanes. Organising it was not straightforward: "It was difficult to find a site to suit all in terms of location - some travel a considerable distance," says Helen.

These days, adventurous spirits can be checked by fear of the unknown, and by anxieties over health and safety. By way of reassurance Helen held training days for staff and taster sessions for parents, so they became familiar with the woodland.

Parental response is upbeat: "Every child should do it," one said. Properly kitted-out, none of the children was deterred by a drop of rain - "I'd like to stay longer... you learn stuff" - and some relished the sense of escape:

"It's better than being in class."

For Clare Semple, who teaches reception and Year 1 at Gorran Primary School, the outdoor class is a revelation. "Last year we chose children who weren't progressing as we thought they should. We've now extended the choice to ones I think would enjoy the outdoors and who feel restricted in class," she says.

"They're learning on their own initiative - it's almost self-generating.

They're meeting children from other schools and there's a big improvement in their self-confidence. It's allowed me to see ways of teaching you don't learn in college, and given me the confidence to try things outdoors. In class, children do things that are all so structural, but nothing on their own," says Clare.

Helen has extended the scope of Outdoor School, enabling the curriculum to be taken out to the school grounds. This has just started at Charlestown Primary School, in St Austell, which has ample green space and a "jungle" and "beach" area for use by KS1 children.

Helen's first session, a cross-curricular activity for reception on the theme of dream-catcher - incorporating PHSE, literacy and art - was rated "fantastic". The session entailed listening to a poem and taking part in a treasure hunt, with each child having to explain what was special about their chosen treasure. Sam Lane, Charlestown's sport co-ordinator, believes it frees teachers to deliver the curriculum more creatively. "A lot of children don't experience the outdoors much," she says. "So much revolves around computers and TVs."



Science focus: the five senses

* Movement: explore the forest as a group. Talk about the woodland the pupils will be working in and use lengths of string to show distance. Walk the boundaries together and give names to the four places marking the boundary.

* Static: explain different ways of searching and finding. Each activity relates to each of the five senses: looking at leaves, smelling the soil, listening to the sound of the trees and birds. Use words, such as sense, eye, sight, see, ear, hearing, smell, nose, touch, feel.

* Movement (touch and feel): place pupils in pairs, blindfold one and ask the other to lead their partner to a tree. Tell them to rub their cheek or hand against the bark. Is the tree alive? Can they put their arms around it? Can they feel any leaves? Ask pupils to lead their partner back to the "classroom" via an indirect route.

* Static: see if they can work out which tree they were "meeting".

* Movement (sight): during this short adventure, "hikers" are guided by a piece of string and cover the trail on their tummies. Ask children to place a length of string along an interesting piece of ground. Give each child a magnifying glass and instruct them to stay close to the ground.

* Static: what did you see?

* Movement (hearing): ask pupils to lie on their back and put both fists in the air. Every time they hear a sound - the wind, river flowing, people talking, rustling leaves - get them to lift one finger.

* Static (taste and smell): can you smell the garlic plant? Review the session by asking: "What did you learn today?"

* Organisations supporting or running outdoor learning sessions:

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