Serious grounds for change

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Outdoor learning has undergone a transformation in Berlin. There is much to inspire us, Jackie Cosh writes

Much has been written about Norway's education system and outdoor learning in its magnificent natural environment. Berlin, in Germany, is in some ways, the complete opposite - a city that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, with a construction boom and renovation that has turned its centre into a concrete jungle.

Twenty years ago, Berlin's school playgrounds, like many in Britain today, were unremarkable areas of tarmac and mown lawns, with playground violence a problem. So the city began a radical programme of redesigning schools. It is now becoming famous for its approach to play and nature, empowering children to take control of their environment and their learning, as well as becoming effective risk managers.

Last year the charity Grounds for Learning, with support from the Scottish government, ran a four-day study trip to Berlin for senior staff from local authorities and others in a position to influence play opportunities and environments within Scotland's school estates.

Elsie Aitken was the only headteacher on the trip. Her school, Longridge Primary in West Lothian, had already been developing outdoor learning and she was keen to see what she could learn from Berlin.

"It all began a few years ago when we had a group of boys who were not ready for Primary 1," she says. "We tried to reach them by promoting language through play but found that it worked much better outside.

"We wanted to get them working out their energy and get them engaged. The result is that these boys are now in P3 and ready to learn. If we had insisted and expected them to sit at their desks, they would have been horrors."

The children already spend as much time as possible outside, and make use of a nearby wood. They have performed Little Red Riding Hood in a much more appropriate setting than a classroom, have used leaves and twigs to help with maths, literacy and art, and often do buddying work where older children work with younger ones on joint projects, but with separate learning outcomes.

Mrs Aitken was still inspired by what she saw in Berlin. The city may be a concrete jungle but there are areas near schools where they have planted fast-growing trees. There is plenty of rough ground and rocks sculpted by children, alongside table tennis tables. There is rubberised equipment that is long lasting and will cope with the rain.

"We asked about what happens when it is wet and they said the children are just careful," Mrs Aitken recalls. "We saw parents pick children up and asked if they were bothered by the fact their children were dirty. They said, 'No, why? They wash, don't they?'

"We saw play-act theatres, artwork outside, and other areas children had helped to design. The children in the kitas (German kindergartens) have brilliant imaginative skills. The stuff left around for them to play with is phenomenal. Some children take time out and you see them just sitting having a chat with others."

Central to the Berlin educational philosophy is that children develop the environment, and all areas are designed in consultation with them and their parents. The latter have a more relaxed attitude to learning to read and write at an early age, which allows schools to follow the outdoor approach rather than pushing them to sit at a desk as soon as possible.

"They don't stop them learning to read and write but they teach them outside," Mrs Aitken says. "That is the fundamental difference."

The work already under way at Longridge has paid dividends. "We don't have the behavioural and engagement issues we had before," she adds. "And what we took from Berlin is that there is even more we can do. We want to develop things further. It doesn't cost a lot of money."

The next plan is to work with the parent council, and create more sandpitted areas, huts and shrubs, perhaps getting local teenagers to help. The grass will be cut less often, so that there is a natural environment.

"We will let weeds grow," Mrs Aitken explains. "This is where the wee beasties live. If we keep killing weeds, we are killing the natural habitat. We will destroy the wee beasties and we won't have the birds who kill them.

"In Berlin they had to make their environment. They had to take the lead and stop creating tarmac jungles. If you passionately believe it helps - and we do - you collaborate, you organise timetables, you find resources to fit."

Outdoor learning in Berlin

In Berlin, staff and parents believe it is important for children's mental health to be allowed time on their own or with others away from the constant gaze of adults. So they are often allowed time in areas where they can't be seen, with supervisors in the same spot who can be contacted if a problem arises.

Water is available in every setting and nothing is out of bounds. Irregular and uneven surfaces are common, as are long grass and nettles.

Children are encouraged to turn to each other for help before approaching adults and there are plenty of opportunities for mixed-aged learning.

While the number of small accidents has increased since the removal of tarmac, serious accidents have decreased as children become more aware of their own capabilities and consequences of their own actions.

Grounds for Learning is planning another Berlin trip this June. For more information, contact Heather Gray, project and training officer:

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