Embracing outdoor learning
She's slept out under the stars, swung through the trees like Tarzan, paddled a raft she helped to build and almost conquered her fear of spiders. It's been quite a week for Isla Neil.
The 17-year-old Dumbarton Academy pupil is one of more than 60 youngsters from 12 Scottish schools taking part in a residential week of outdoor learning at the Abernethy Activity Centre in the Cairngorms National Park.
This is their last day at Nethy Bridge. But before they leave, the fifth- and sixth-years are sharing their experiences in presentations to teachers who have arrived today for a continuing professional development (CPD) activities weekend. The aim is to make teachers feel more confident about taking children out of the classroom for outdoor learning.
Just hearing from pupils like Isla immediately impresses the new arrivals. "I am really inspired by the confidence these kids have gained, the relationships they have developed with each other and the whole feel-good factor they've got out of their time here," says Linda Law, depute headteacher at Hayshead Primary in Arbroath.
So what's Isla been up to? "Everything," says the sixth-year, who hopes to study law next year. She's just helped her group make their presentation to teachers - playing the part of John Muir with an impressive-looking fake beard and singing a song in Swahili they learned round the campfire.
"The first day we got here we were chucked in at the deep end and we were doing abseiling within the hour. So we were abseiling and rock climbing the first day," says Isla.
"The next day - we needed to get up at 20 to 8 every morning - so you can imagine us teenagers are like `aw!' But it's totally worth it because you know the activities are coming and you've got tons of stuff to do," she says.
As part of their leadership and team-building programme, teams of pupils from different schools have to build shelters for their bivouac night out. Thanks to support from her new friends, Isla even coped with an army of spiders.
"We all sang round the campfire and we had hot chocolate and marshmallows, then we slept under the stars. The shelters were amazing and everybody worked so hard and really worked as a team so we managed to get them finished by nightfall."
This is the second year this residential event has been staged as a partnership between Cairngorms National Park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority, Education Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Forestry Commission and seven local authorities bordering the parks.
"The John Muir Award has formed the basis of the week, so its four- challenge framework is the way we have been operating," says Alan Smith, outdoor learning officer for Cairngorms National Park Authority.
"They've been discovering a new place, exploring it through different activities, they've been conserving it by thinking about their impact on it and then this morning, with the presentations, they're sharing their experiences."
The teenagers are buzzing after a week of fun, new friendships and inevitably less sleep than normal. Team building and problem solving have been key features: "They had to defuse `bombs' that were in the water by swimming out - some of them got very wet and very muddy, but they all absolutely loved it," says Deborah Fagan, a PE teacher who accompanied the group from Isla's school.
For Jodie Hutton, 17, from Webster's High in Kirriemuir, this is a first visit to this national park. "It's been challenging but I've really enjoyed it. The best thing was the assault course - a lot of obstacles you had to go over in a race against other groups."
Her PE teacher Laura Hutton is also exhilarated by the experience. "It's been action-packed, thrill-seeking, pushing you out of your comfort zone completely - I am shattered," she says.
Later, as pupils from schools across Scotland hug and promise to keep in touch before embarking on the journey home, 17-year-old Callum Brooks from St John's Academy in Perth acknowledges this week has changed him.
"I feel I am a better leader for it. Sometimes when I was a leader in the past I would take charge, regardless of suitability. But I have learned to stand back if I've not the expertise in the subject - and everything runs a lot more smoothly if you do."
Testimonials likes this and the exuberance of these teenagers after a week of adventure provide interesting insights for teachers who have joined them before beginning a weekend of outdoor CPD.
"We have a huge outdoor area that we don't feel we are using to the best advantage for the children," says Hayshead Primary's Linda Law.
She has been inspired by the teenagers' presentations and is hoping to adapt some of the activities she has seen and heard about to suit nursery children at her school.
Buckie High English teacher Donna Innes is looking for ideas to inspire pupils' creativity and combine it with outdoor activity. "I'm interested in creating a residential for fifth- and sixth-years in the senior school for writing, because they're doing their Higher writing portfolio," she says.
For teachers planning to get out into the great outdoors, an online resource pack, Getting into Scotland's National Parks and National Nature Reserves, has good ideas for helping to make it happen. It answers questions about finding space in the school timetable, convincing colleagues it's a good idea and about paperwork. It was produced by the national parks and SNH after research identified barriers which prevented visitors from different backgrounds getting involved.
The pack helps teachers to identify curricular links in line with Curriculum for Excellence and shows how outdoor learning will benefit their pupils. It has information on transport and funding, and provides evidence to convince colleagues and senior managers that outdoor learning is an achievable priority.
There are also examples of what other schools, such as Grantown Grammar have achieved by embedding the John Muir Award in the school curriculum, and how another school suspended the curriculum for S3 for an environmental week, which included activities in Cairngorms National Park.
"It's even more important where children aren't getting the opportunities for being outdoors and active outside school, that they get these opportunities regularly and frequently at school," says Alison Hammerton, development officer for outdoor learning with Scotland's National Parks, based at Education Scotland.
"They get to experience the pleasures that they can get from being outdoors and you are laying down habits for the rest of their life, where they are being active, where they've got connection with nature and with our wonderful environments and landscapes."
Miss Hammerton is an ideal advocate for outdoor learning in Scotland. She loves being outside and thinks it makes learning more fun and more memorable. She has played rugby for Scotland and spends her free time hill walking, mountain biking and trying out new activities. She was a principal teacher of geography in Glasgow before taking up her current role.
Her objective is to get more schools, teachers and pupils enjoying outdoor learning. That means getting everyone behind the idea that outdoor learning is worthwhile and achievable and that you don't have to compete in triathlons to take children outside.
Instead, teachers can learn from what colleagues elsewhere are doing in online case studies and get advice about developing lesson plans, organising their outings and get guidance from experts at the locations they are visiting.
"We've got some really, really inspiring examples all over the place, lots and lots of them for whom outdoor learning isn't new," says Miss Hammerton. "They have been doing it brilliantly for years, working with their communities and giving their children and young people some fantastic outdoor learning opportunities.
"What is new is that it's now part of the curriculum and so we are looking to really support staff - developing their confidence, developing their capacities for outdoor learning across the board. The ideal is to get to where we've got all staff confident and planning regular outdoor learning across the board."
Miss Hammerton has been working on the Outdoor Learning with the National Parks project for two-and-a-half years and, in partnership with the project's steering group, has developed new recommendations for teachers, heads and local authorities to promote the outdoor classroom.
"Very often you speak to people and when they look back at their schooling, what they remember is when they've been outdoors, when they've been on a field trip of some sort," she says. "In my experience, whenever you take children outdoors they enjoy it - it's memorable, it's real, it's fun, it's challenging."
The partnership is delivering CPD courses like this one for teachers and supporting them in local authority Outdoor Learning Groups to drive forward the outdoor agenda.
A range of projects for children and conferences for their teachers has inspired new ideas and enthusiasm and given teachers the chance to network and get to know more about Scotland's national parks.
Now the partnership's report, Bringing Alive Learning in Our National Parks, is urging more local authorities, schools and teachers elsewhere in Scotland to develop similar opportunities in a range of locations. Their goal is to ensure all Scottish children experience outdoor learning in playgrounds, local parks and woodlands, local and national nature reserves, national parks and overseas.
They are also highlighting the help national parks can offer and suggesting that Scotland's other local authorities might replicate this partnership model in other parts of Scotland.
The project is showcasing some of the outdoor projects teachers across Scotland have been working on, highlighting case studies on the Education Scotland website to inspire others.
As Alison Hammerton says: "If they've got these connections, if they're visiting these places regularly, then they begin to feel a bit of an ownership and want to look after it and make sure it's looked after for their children and their children's children."
HOW TO GET THEM HOOKED
Top tips from Getting into Scotland's National Parks and National Nature Reserves
Get a buddy
Find a named contact in the park or national nature reserve to help you understand how things work and for help with ideas and resources.
Use experienced support staff
Use national park staff to identify whether you need special experts for your trip.
Use local community workers and national park staff to identify benefits from your outdoor activity and to help source and apply for suitable funding.
The resource pack Getting Into Scotland's National Parks and National Nature Reserves is available on the national parks' websites, under "educational resources".
- www.education scotland.gov.uk
- Cairngorms National Park Authority
- Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park 01389 722600 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Original print headline: Going back to nature