All the fun of the great outdoors

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Moors and lochs, mountains and glens can become a rewarding part of the curriculum for pupils and teachers. Emma Seith reports


Unique wildlife and plants, moorlands, forests, rivers, lochs and Arctic mountain landscape all lie on the doorstep of Grantown Grammar, in the Cairngorm National Park.

PE teacher Lorna Crane says: "Ten minutes away are 1,000 acres of woodland and the river Spey. Everything is easily accessible. It is an opportunity not to be missed."

The school has a long history of tapping into these vast resources. It ran the Duke of Edinburgh award, S4 kayaking and a hill-walking and orienteering course for S1s. But there was no sense of progression as pupils moved from S1-6, she says. Recognition of pupil achievement in the great outdoors was also limited.

"We decided to modernise our outdoor programme," Ms Crane continues. "We wanted it to be challenging, enjoyable and progressive. And we wanted to make pupils aware of their local environment."

Now, thanks to flexible time-tabling, S1s get out for eight half-days and S2 for four days of adventurous activity - cross-country skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, river walks - without other subjects being impinged on. S1-2s also go out on trips with partner agencies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (with its own dragon fly pit at one of its reserves) and Highland Council rangers.

The John Muir Awards gave the school the structure for its outdoor education programme, explains Ms Crane. S1 pupils are heading for the Discover award, while S2 is tackling Explorer. Eventually, Ms Crane hopes pupils might continue with the John Muir awards in S3.

While senior pupils can aspire to become Cairngorm National Park junior rangers or follow the Duke of Edinburgh awards, outdoor education has yet to be embedded in their curriculum. This is a school ambition, but money is needed, says headteacher Irene Carson. "Even to take pupils out to the woods, you need more staff than if you have 30 pupils in a classroom," she says.

Ms Crane, meanwhile, would like to improve links with partners like the RSPB and for more cross-curricular links to be forged. In music, pupils have used their outdoor experiences to inspire compositions, and in French, they have applied their knowledge to write guides to the local area. "It's not always easy to organise, but what the kids get out of it is enormous and the feedback is wholly positive," says Ms Carson.


Almost two-thirds of Clackmannanshire primaries do not use their playgrounds for learning, claims an audit of its school grounds carried out by Grounds for Learning.

The council called in the charity to help its schools and teachers make use of them during lessons and to improve their playgrounds. The year-long project saw 18 primary teachers in 10 schools trained to move learning beyond the classroom. "It was about how to take the curriculum outdoors, even if the playground was tarmac and grass," says Grounds for Learning's Aileen Anderson. "It was also about embedding that in the everyday practice of teaching."

At the outset, Ms Anderson says, not all teachers were enthusiastic. However, after attending two twilight sessions and spending two in-service days working on planning, delivering and then evaluating a lesson, they were converts. "There was a significant shift in individuals from sceptics to enthusiasts," she says.

Staff from Banchory Primary and Nursery decided to tackle their "water" topic outdoors. Teachers set up five stations for nursery and P1 pupils, including storytelling; floating and sinking; and a problem-solving station.

Teachers at Muckhart Primary took their fairyland and tales topic outside, where pupils designed their own magical kingdom in roped-off patches of ground, using natural materials to create forests and castles. And at Menstrie School, where pupils had been studying dinosaurs, they went outside to draw a life-size Tyrannosaurus rex with string.

As for the school grounds, the council plans to feed the information from the audit into its five-year estate management plan, beginning a process of improvement.


Five years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage contacted Iain McGregor, a biology teacher at Monifieth High in Angus, to explore how the school might use one of the sites it manages: Tentsmuir in Fife. "Since then, we have taken outdoor learning to a different level," he says.

This year, 120 S3 pupils made the trip to Tentsmuir, with its beaches, woodland and sand dunes, to carry out biosphere work. Mr McGregor has also forged links with the Scottish Crop Research Institute based at Invergowrie, where pupils are helping scientists construct a polytunnel.

The school, meanwhile, has created outdoor learning opportunities in its own grounds with a greenhouse and wildlife areas. Soon it also hopes to boast a wind turbine and solar panels.;

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