Outdoor learning the Swedish way

We should take a leaf out of our Nordic neighbour's book and walk on the wild side more often, says Alison Hilton

Alison Hilton

One morning a week, I teach on a voluntary basis in my son's school and delight in taking a small group of children from his Primary 1 class into the local woodland. We explore, learn and have fun outside together, whatever the weather.

I particularly value the learning opportunities that an outdoor environment can offer, as I believe we are made to be part of our natural environment, in tune with its rhythms and stimulated by its changing cycles, and that without such exposure we cannot realise our full potential.

In 2010, I was working as a pre-school teacher when a Swedish outdoor learning teacher visited to see how outdoor learning is delivered in Scotland. Anna and I maintained contact and the seed was planted that one day I could do similar research in Sweden.

My degree is in outdoor education, so I have always been keen to move into this area of employment. A break from work, to be a full-time mum, presented me with the opportunity to attempt a new route back into work.

In April 2012, I secured funding from the British Council through the Comenius programme, which aims to develop knowledge and understanding, in students and educators, of the diversity across European cultures. I received pound;800 to travel to Sweden and shadow a number of teachers in different outdoor learning settings.

With Curriculum for Excellence recognising the importance of outdoor learning, teachers are becoming increasingly aware of how they can make the most of any opportunities for their classes. I was hopeful that a trip to Sweden would open my eyes to what was possible and provide me with ideas for improving outdoor learning for our children.

The five days in Sweden took me around educational settings for pre-school to P7-aged children. I began my week south east of Gothenburg with a group of 10-year-olds who learn outside for one day each week. We took a historical walk around the village of Fritsla, then at lunchtime the children used a stove to cook our meal. We all ate spaghetti bolognaise and they displayed a real sense of pride. In the afternoon, we walked to the local forest where the school has built five wooden shelters and two fire pits. There they were given time to play; they whittled sticks, built dens and climbed trees.

I enjoyed visiting the children in their chosen special spots, talking with them about what they were doing and watching them play imaginatively and independently. We had a review around the fire to close the day: it had been a real success, with the children who sometimes present challenging behaviour in class engaged throughout and everyone having fun.

The next day I spent in an outdoor classroom for pre-school children. This was a large wooden shelter, big enough for tables, storage, sleeping area and displays, but open at the front on to the school grounds. The staff and children dressed in warm waterproof clothing - the temperature was around 3 degrees.

The teacher began the day with a spring story and then a linked craft activity. After the lesson, the children continued their learning outside in the grounds, where they played in willow dens, tree platforms, a sand area and mud. There were two members of staff to keep a close eye on the 15 children. They enjoyed having such freedom and thoroughly engaged with each other.

This school also has a designated area of local forest land, where they have a shelter and fire pit, to which the children regularly walk the 10- minute journey.

"Nature is an endless laboratory, a cosy room, a room for play, a place for construction, a gymnasium and many other things." That is the ethos of Friluftsframjandet, an independent organisation founded in 1892. It believes that "an outdoor lifestyle can positively affect public health and quality of life".

For two further days of my week, I visited Ur och Skur. These are outdoor schools operating under the Friluftsframjandet umbrella, and the teachers are trained in outdoor learning. One was in a rural setting, the other in the city of Boras.

I spent my time in both schools with pre-school children. At this age there is an emphasis on environmental respect and understanding. Before entering a woodland, the children sing to a tree while knocking gently on its trunk, asking permission to enter the forest and promising to look after whatever is inside. A puppet ladybird and squirrel then accompany them. The puppets' voices do much of the teaching from then on.

The forest became their classroom, with a place to keep bags, eat snacks, sit, talk and play. It was the start of spring, so the children used identification cards as they looked at buds on the trees. They hunted for letters of the alphabet with microscopes, practised writing in the ground and at snack time the teacher taught them about numbers, colours (in English too) and counting using a tally format. A teaching point was drawn out of every situation, some clearly planned, others quite spontaneous due to the nature of the children's play and the situation. What could be better?

The school grounds were extensive and rocky, with places to hide, ski, roll and jump. There were wooden shelters for teaching or sleeping.

Each of the schools welcomed me warmly. It was a fantastic experience, which has made a lasting impression and provided me with so many ideas about how I can create a rich outdoor learning experience for children here in Scotland.

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Alison Hilton

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