Playgrounds: the final frontier

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Schools can get all the benefits of outdoor education without leaving home, says David Doughty.

There will always be those youngsters for whom hanging off a cliff is never going to be the great life-changing experience that protaganists claim it is. I have been involved in outdoor activities for years. I have canoed, climbed, sailed single-handedly and, until recently, was an active fell runner. And I have come to the conclusion that adventure activities are not in themselves educational.

For the outdoor experience to be properly educational, it must be carefully structured so that every pupil has the chance to participate. So how can we do this?

The answer is easy and relatively cheap: stay at school. I can assure you that the desired educational outcomes of outdoor education (problem solving, team work, initiative and such like) can be achieved far more effectively through a programme of activities which take place in your own school grounds.

Furthermore, these can be accomplished quickly. Activities can fit into an hour-long lesson, with 45 minutes for an activity and 15 minutes for a review.

Success will ultimately depend on the pupils' ability to function as a team and much of the preparation for the activities centres on team-building, problem-solving and learning to listen.

Large grounds are not essential; you just need space in which to operate. The "tennis ball relay", for example, works well among buildings.In this task, a message is attached to a tennis ball and team members have to station themselves strategically, so that the message can pass from one to another along a tortuous route. The "picnic" needs just enough room for each group to have its own space, where pupils can set out their food and perhaps cook over a camp stove.

One of the most popular activities is building a simple bivouac using wooden poles, string and plastic sheeting. Bad weather can even add a sense of purpose. And if you all share a snack inside it afterwards, so much the better.

Teachers will need to use a variety of approaches to engineer specific outcomes: balancing gender, attitude and ability. Much of what we want pupils to learn is learned from one another, so the way the groups work together is crucial.

To get the most out of these experiences, there must be opportunities to reflect on what has been done and to assess what worked and what didn't. If the group's attempt to carry out the task was a disaster, because they could not work as a team, then they should examine why this happened and consider strategies for future co-operation.

What do pupils make of this type of outdoor activity? From the programmes I have seen, they appear to enjoy it enormously, but it is hard to assess the long-term benefits at this early stage.

What is needed is for more schools to undertake this type of programme, so that valid comparisons can be made.

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