Risk and risk-ability

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Want to help pupils be more confident and cope with danger? Deedee Cuddihy asks teachers where they take their classes for a challenge

You would be hard pressed these days to find anyone involved in education who doesn't believe that outdoor learning is a "good thing". Schools and specialist providers throughout Scotland have come up with a huge variety of ways to give pupils outdoor experiences that are exciting and safe.

All children struggle to overcome their fears, but how much more difficult - and important - must it be if you can't see? The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh has 86 pupils from P1 to S6, half of whom have a physical and a visual impairment, and outdoor learning has been embedded in their curriculum for years.

"We regularly use the Scottish Archery Centre, the Port Edgar water sports centre, Ronnie Dale for quad biking and Alien Rock in Newhaven for indoor climbing, which is excellent for overcoming fears because there is a perceived risk that it is scary, but there is actually no risk," says Margaret Ferguson Burns, the head of outdoor learning.

"We had one blind pupil with no legs who made it right up to the ceiling. We've had pupils in wheelchairs out in boats at Lochore Meadows and ice skating in Princes Street Gardens, where they can experience the sound of skates on ice."

While most children don't face such daunting challenges, all benefit from careful confidence-building and it is central to the Curriculum for Excellence.

Roy Gibson set up Active Outdoor Pursuits, which has three centres in Ayrshire and the Highlands, more than 10 years ago and says that schools are becoming more aware of the importance of outdoor learning.

"Structured outdoor activity brings out the best in children," he believes. "In fact, they behave better than the adults in the corporate groups we cater for. The best kind of outdoor learning combines problem solving, socialising, communication and, of course, adventure.

"You want to challenge them but not push them too hard. However, in the 10 and more years we've been in business, children do seem to have become less fit and we have to adjust activities accordingly."

Janice Hawick of Can You Experience Loch Lomond? has welcomed a variety of clients to her company's base since it was set up in 2001, among them school groups taking part in the Give Us A Break scheme run by the Scottish Youth Hostels Association. Upper primary and secondary school pupils spend two nights at a hostel and two days raft building, canoeing and mountain biking among other activities.

"The kids love it," she says. "Our job is not to force youngsters to take part in an activity they've never tried before, but to encourage them to go beyond their comfort zone. It gives them a wonderful sense of achievement to have overcome their fears and it's lovely to see their faces beaming as they say: `I never thought I'd be able to do that.'"

Harris Academy in Dundee takes full advantage of the service provided by its local authority's Ancrum Outdoor Education Centre, situated on the outskirts of the city. Throughout the year, pupils go to the centre in six-week blocks, one day a week to learn about undertaking risk, listening to instructions and working as a team. They take part in a range of activities including cliff walking, cave exploring and mountain boarding. All specialist clothing is provided and pupils, who attend in small groups, are collected and returned to the school.

Where do you go for outdoor learning when your school is situated in the middle of the "outdoors" on a small island off a bigger island? Liz Kennedy, headteacher of Iona Primary, gets her pupils - eight in total, aged five to 11 - outside everyday, at the very least for games in the field which serves as their playground and includes a nature pond and vegetable garden. Each child is provided with a waterproof jacket, trousers and gloves, kept at school.

On sunny days, they head off for a climb up Dun 1, the highest hill on Iona where they "island spot" Rhum, Coll and Tiree. There are walks to the historic, disused marble quarry where they collect pieces of marble to be sold on as souvenirs to visitors and raise funds for the school. "A lot of our curriculum work is carried on in the outdoors," says Ms Kennedy, "with activities that combine science, geography, PE and enterprise, among others."


The Learning and Teaching Scotland website covers all aspects of outdoor learning, including Why learn outdoors?; Where to go; What to do; How to learn safely; Sharing practice and Professional development. - www.ltscotland.org.ukoutdoorlearningabout

Active Outdoor Pursuits offers schools day and residential packages in Ayrshire and the Highlands. Groups booking a Schools Adventure Day Trip can choose from between one and four activities, including river rafting and Ducky trips, canoeing, gorge scrambling and abseiling. - www.activeoutdoorpursuits.comschools.aspx

Five Senses, based in Orkney, is "committed to providing the very highest standards of environmental education in a format that is fresh, invigorating and has lasting impact". Activities and courses such as Brains not Brawn and Wilderness Walking have been designed to "breathe life into school subjects whilst also meeting national curriculum standards." - www.allfivesenses.com

The Auchengillan outdoor centre, in Blanefield near Glasgow, offers a huge variety of activities to schools, including circus skills, bouncy castle, para drop and crate climbing. - www.auchengillan.com.

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