Alfresco learning leaves children open to new ideas

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
By moving lessons outside, primary teachers in Clackmannanshire are benefiting from improved pupil behaviour

Scotland's weather hardly makes outside learning an inviting prospect, so teachers could be forgiven for not being the most enthusiastic of advocates. But schools in Clackmannanshire are changing all that through an Effective Learning in School Grounds programme, run by Grounds for Learning.

Part of Learning through Landscapes, the UK charity which helps schools and nurseries make the most of their outdoor spaces, Grounds for Learning has been working with Clackmannanshire Council since 2007 to develop an authority-wide plan to improve the grounds of primary schools and encourage outdoor learning.

Clackmannanshire is committed to bringing the benefits to all its primaries. It has performed an audit of school grounds and is implementing the programme in a phased way, with funding allocated to develop sites in consultation with staff, parents and pupils.

Helen Finch, headteacher of Muckhart Primary, was one of 19 teachers involved in the programme, which ran from November 2008 to May 2009.

"We met up initially to discuss ideas, then went away to think," she says. "We had to have our own ideas but we also planned as a group. We bounced ideas off each other, evaluating disasters and successes in a way teachers don't always get to do."

The programme encourages teachers to think about how they can use their grounds to facilitate learning. "Prior to this, we just did traditional maths games outside and a bit of language. But we weren't using the grounds to inspire learning," says Mrs Finch.

"Now we are making life-size Viking longboats; the children have made a polar waterhole where they go and sit round and tell stories; and the middle class have a pretend campfire from their Viking project where they go out and read sagas and pretend to toast marshmallows."

Help was available from Grounds for Learning staff, giving advice and support if needed, says Mrs Finch: "They were an extra pair of hands if we required it."

Alastair Seaman, programme manager for Grounds for Learning, says: "Using your grounds creatively can add significant value to teaching and learning. The combination of fresh air and natural daylight creates a more stimulating environment that naturally engages children and has been shown to have a positive impact on long-term memory.

"School grounds offer a wide range of learning opportunities that simply aren't available indoors. For example, you can work on a bigger scale, allowing secondary pupils to measure the speed of sound or primary pupils to create a life-size image of a dinosaur," he explains.

All these projects can be worked on at very little cost. "We didn't need to make many changes," says Mrs Finch. "Grounds for Learning says you should use what you've got and only spend money if you have it."

As a three-teacher school, Muckhart Primary is small enough for all staff to get involved.

One teacher in the school had a child with behavioural problems in her class, so was wary of venturing outside. But her fears were unfounded. "She is now (teaching outside) and it has had a calming effect on the boy," says Mrs Finch. "Being outside gives him a sense of freedom. She still sets guidelines but will often take the class outside, if he is about to explode."

An improvement in behaviour is seen in many schools. A 2003 survey of 700 schools and early years settings using the programme found that 73 per cent saw improvements in pupils' behaviour.

"Most teachers actually find children are so engaged in what they're doing outside, that behaviour is less of an issue than it is inside," says Mr Seaman. "And if children have been actively learning outdoors, they tend to be more ready to settle when they're back inside."

Muckhart parents are also convinced of the benefits. In a recent parent evaluation, many said they wanted more outside learning. Children are also arriving at school dressed to go outdoors.

"We use going outside to give writing more purpose and parents have seen an improvement in the children's writing, particularly the boys'," says Mrs Finch. "One boy, who previously did not like writing, has been transformed into a boy who now writes a lot and enjoys writing."

When the recent snow was thick on the ground, the school made an igloo in the playground, calling on family and friends to assist. The children liked sharing this with their families, helping install a sense of pride in their work.

"The pupils sat in the igloo and thought about what it felt like," recalls Mrs Finch. "They discussed the various senses and what it would feel like to spend the night there. Then they went away and wrote about it."

The programme has resulted in a huge amount of writing, both non-fiction and inspirational. One of the most memorable tasks is the infants' "houses and homes" project.

"A builder came in with a digger and helped them each build a wall with cement," remembers Mrs Finch. "The children loved this and went on to write a news report about it, and to produce written instructions on how to build a wall. They also wrote thank you notes to the builders."

Working outdoors can be the ideal solution for messy science experiments. "I'd rather things explode outside," says Mrs Finch. "Anything we can do inside, we can do outside."

The space also helps them put parts of history into context. Trying to imagine the size of the Pyramids is near impossible, but when the class went out and used the playground to picture their size, it was much easier.

All children in the school have been involved in the programme. While the younger ones go back to their classrooms to write about their experiences, the older ones are able to stay in the open.

Mrs Finch says: "The children are no longer surprised to be going outside, and it isn't a novelty. They think more outdoors and produce a better quality of draft when writing. They are inspired more. It is a calmer space to think.

"We haven't done an evaluation, so it is hard to tell whether improvements are due to experiential experiments or outdoor learning or a combination of both, but they always get something out of it. Every time we try something outside, I am surprised at the impact."

The programme has led to permanent changes in the school's teaching. "It has just become part of our practice. And it fits in well with what we are doing for a Curriculum for Excellence," says Mrs Finch. "We are also more adventurous and willing to take risks. People ask `Is it not a lot of planning?' But it is just a different type of planning."

As time goes on, enthusiasm has not waned and the children still love having the opportunity to learn outside. So is this something any school could do? "Yes," says Mrs Finch. "But it takes a big leap of faith, and you need to have support from the top, both from the headteacher and from the local council."

The Grounds for Learning vision is for every school in Scotland to enrich the lives of its pupils through developing and using its outdoor spaces for learning, health, sustainability, sociability and fun, states Mr Seaman.

"With the right kind of support, every teacher can learn how to apply their professional skills to the outdoors and become an effective outdoor practitioner."


Hannah Raine, a P2 teacher at Deerpark Primary in Clackmannanshire, was involved in the Grounds for Learning programme, along with Muckhart Primary's Helen Finch.

"It was great having that support within the local authority and, if there were any problems, there was someone to phone," Ms Raine says. "I have learnt a lot of ideas from Helen, which I wouldn't have thought of.

"My headteacher suggested Grounds for Learning to me. I hadn't done any outdoor learning but it sounded interesting, and it is now a key part of my planning.

"The kids are more motivated, more enthusiastic, and more engrossed in their work. They behave better because they have space to move around outside. It also helps towards their two hours of exercise each week.

"One project we did was called "The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch". This was a piece of artwork the children made, where they wove plastic bags, rope, string and old material through a fence to make a picture. It took a couple of weeks to make and the final piece was a sea picture with different colours, and with fish and crabs.

"Our catchment area is very different from Muckhart's. We have more concrete, while they have more grassy areas. And while I take my everyday teaching outside, Helen's teaching is more natural and she uses more natural materials.

"We have started a wellies bank, but if it is raining, we don't go out.

"It is not reinventing the wheel. It is about taking normal teaching skills and gradually adapting them. I would say be brave, give it a go."


Muckhart Primary pupils explain why they like learning outside

"I prefer working outside. We have an outdoor learning box which we use with things like beads and rope. I like making people and landscapes from books, using materials."

Silas Pease, P6

"I was quite excited when we first started going outside. I like reading outside. Sometimes the teacher gives us a description of a character and we have to make it, using the outdoor learning box and other things round about."

Ben Hodgson, P6

"When we first started going out I thought it was a lot different from being in the classroom because of the space. I really like it. As well as learning, we get fresh air and to run around. I like doing science outside. It was really cool when Mrs Finch made volcanoes and they exploded."

Anna Glasgow, P6

"It is fun because we get to learn outside and get fresh air instead of being in the warm classroom. I like using the outside box to draw and make things, rather than just using paper. One day we made a map of the UK using sand."

Lisa Wilson, P7.

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