Finding its place in the sun

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Often left on the sidelines, outdoor learning is starting to make its presence felt

Outdoor learning may finally have moved from the curricular margins into the mainstream - but many teachers lack support and crucial funding is disappearing into a morass of local government finance.

Organisers of a national conference near Perth last week rejoiced that they were no longer a gathering of enthusiasts, and had high-level national and local support.

Alastair Seaman, programme manager for school grounds charity Grounds for Learning, delivered an upbeat address after last year bemoaning the lack of support for outdoor learning. He pointed to Scottish Government early years guidance which described an "entitlement" to outdoor play. The Scottish Conservatives had supported the Government's budget on condition that Pounds 1 million be set aside for outdoor learning. HMIE also flagged up the importance of outdoor play.

Local authorities were making landmark decisions to prioritise the outdoors. Clackmannanshire Council was working on a management plan for its entire school grounds, the first document of its type in the UK. North Lanarkshire Council had an authority-wide plan for outdoor learning in the early years.

Bruce Robertson, Aberdeenshire's education director and chair of Scotland's strategic advisory group for outdoor learning, said his authority's curriculum framework document enshrined every child's right to enjoy the Cairngorms National Park and the north-east's "rich coastline".

He insisted that pupils would become "far better citizens" if "exposed to the rich tapestry of the outdoors in all its wonderful forms". Those making the transition to primary or secondary, in particular, would benefit. He believed the success of outdoor learning required successful tie-ins with Glow, the Scottish schools intranet, which "gives us the opportunity to take the outdoors in and take the indoors out".

Pupils from Edinburgh's Tynecastle High encapsulated the conference theme - A Curriculum for Excellence in Your Grounds - by showing how their transformation of a nondescript strip of land, overshadowed by Hearts FC's stadium, supported cross-curricular work. In biology, pupils looked at plants' life cycles, art students drew the plants and enterprise pupils sold them.

Pride had soared after St Matthew's Primary in Wishaw won Pounds 10,000 from the Royal Bank of Scotland to transform a vandalised playground. Headteacher Maureen McGhee said an "enormous" number of pupils claimed free meals and many had never seen food grow or been to a castle. It was turned into a vibrant haven for plant life and a mock castle. It made a huge difference to both school and community.

Such stories were not repeated everywhere, however. Steve Moizer, a Grounds for Learning development officer who helped St Matthew's, described some less inspiring, utilitarian outdoor areas.

Mr Seaman said all schools could not be expected to provide quality outdoor learning, unless there was more work in this area during initial teacher education. He added that, where Scottish Natural Heritage had previously provided small grants for creating attractive outdoor spaces, the Government's concordat meant this money was now controlled by authorities. West Lothian Council had committed itself to continuing this funding as before, but the situation was less clear in most authorities.

Even the most ardent outdoor learning advocates admit that leaving the school can make them nervous. Jenny Whitehead, a P4-7 teacher at Port of Menteith Primary, found maths-related races in the sun a "great equaliser", especially for boys who struggle with textbooks but shine in PE. Yet she sometimes "panicked" that she did not have enough written evidence to show the progress pupils were making.

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