Outdoor learning is widely accepted to be a Good Thing. Getting pupils out of the classroom and into the fresh air can offer all sorts of opportunities for memorable and experiential learning.
Even school inspectors approve. Ofsted's 2008 report Learning Outside the Classroom said that, when planned and implemented well, outdoor learning "contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils' personal, social and emotional development". The report went on to say it was most successful when part of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities.
However, some teachers can be reluctant to make it part of their teaching. According to Andy Robinson, chief executive of the Institute for Outdoor Learning, there are still many perceived obstacles. The institute was founded 12 years ago to bring together organisations that deliver outdoor education as part of a wider effort to promote access and improve standards.
"There's a cultural idea that being around nature is dangerous or dirty; this perception that dirty hands are somehow a bad thing," Robinson says. "There are also barriers in teachers' minds about what is required to operate sufficiently - a perception that it's a burden and it's not worth it. They worry about things like risk and liabilities, and wonder: 'How many pieces of paper will I have to fill in to do this?'
"Most outdoor education advisers are keen to stress that a risk assessment is not a huge bureaucratic exercise. And if you take genuine precautions and genuine accidents happen then it's no different from if they happened in the classroom. The real potential danger is that children will be growing up only engaging with nature on a screen."
Although all four UK nations promote outdoor learning to some extent, especially in the early years, only Scotland currently has a commitment to the practice enshrined in its curriculum. The Curriculum for Excellence states that all staff have a responsibility to offer "regular and frequent" outdoor learning experiences from the early years, through school and beyond.
In contrast, a survey earlier this year of 150 primaries and early years settings in England revealed inconsistencies in the amount of time children spend outdoors. Forty-five per cent of respondents said children spent between 11 and 25 per cent of their day outside, with the figure tailing off as children grew older, according to the survey by eco-building company the Learning Escape.
In Wales, where outdoor learning is promoted in the play-led foundation phase for children aged 3 to 7, a 2011 report by schools inspectorate Estyn found it is helping to improve the behaviour, fitness and well-being of under-5s, but that schools are still not fully realising its potential.
False perception of risk
Juno Hollyhock, executive director of the Learning through Landscapes charity, agrees with Robinson that the biggest barrier is the perception of risk.
"Of course there are risks, but the benefits outweigh the risks," she says. "If you don't expose pupils to some sort of risk they won't know their boundaries when they are older.
"We need to move away from this culture of thinking that a teacher has done something wrong if a child has a scratch, bump or bruise.
"There's also the fear that pupils are suddenly going to run off and disappear if you take them outside. They're not going to do that. We try to encourage teachers to feel confident."
Another fear among teachers is that they might need specialist training or qualifications before they are even allowed to take their pupils outdoors, a misconception that outdoor education groups are keen to dispel.
"Certain outdoor activities do require a degree of experience and expertise, but the vast majority of activities that a teacher might want to do on a day-to-day basis require only a common-sense approach," Robinson says. "You are discouraging outdoor learning if you are telling teachers that they need qualifications before they can engage. The vast majority of local authorities do not stipulate that.
"We would much rather teachers engage with the outdoor learning environment. There's so much to learn just by going out there."
Working with limited space
Even teachers who are keen to engage with the outdoors can often feel hampered by the lack of a suitable locale.
Teachers in rural schools might be lucky enough to have acres of green space within their own grounds or to have access to nearby woodlands or fields, but for those teaching in inner-city schools with nothing but concrete and asphalt for company, outdoor education can seem like a distant dream.
But that does not have to be the case, according to Hollyhock. "It's really important people don't feel limited by the paucity of outdoor space they have," she says. "You don't have to have acres of space: anything outdoors is good. Even the tiniest of areas has something it can teach you or the children. In fact, very limited spaces can be a resource.
"Food or plant growing can be done in a very small space. You can grow herbs, fruit, vegetables or even flowers in a roof garden or even on a set of outdoor shelves. Or you can explore different surfaces and materials, both natural and man-made.
"If you can even just go outside and feel the weather and the elements, the wind, rain and sun, it gives children the ability to ask 'Why is it like that?' If there's space for a child and a teacher there's space for a deeper and richer learning experience."
Learning through Landscapes helps schools to transform their outdoor spaces into stimulating learning environments. Its website contains a number of case studies of schools that have made innovative use of their fields, yards and even rooftops, often with the help of businesses and the local community.
For example, Barry Island Primary School in South Wales did not let a lack of space or funding get in its way. Despite being surrounded by tarmac and terraces, the school transformed a piece of waste ground overlooking the old Barry docks into an exciting learning space with a playground, pond, flower beds and storytelling circle. Members of the local community assisted with fundraising and digging, and local residents still help to maintain the garden.
Staff at Sharrow School, a primary in Sheffield, wanted to create a natural environment for the children, but did not have any grassy areas at ground level - so they raised their sights and built a nature reserve on the roof. The 2,000m2 "green roof" contains a variety of habitats reflecting those found in Sheffield, and through it pupils learn how important it is to look after the environment.
Ofsted has found several other schools with excellent outdoor provision and published profiles of them on its website. These include Courthouse Green Primary School in Coventry, where an outdoor area was designed specifically to provide high-quality learning experiences for purposeful, imaginative and creative play in the early years foundation stage (EYFS).
Although the school was somewhat lucky to have a lot of space on its new premises, staff set out to create a learning environment to take children into a world of "open-ended possibilities".
The resources they purchased and developed following a lengthy planning process were flexible enough to allow different outdoor learning environments to be created depending on requirements. Inspectors judged the effectiveness of the EYFS provision to be outstanding.
And it is not just primary schools. Ofsted cites Wolverley CofE Secondary School in Worcestershire as an example of best practice for engaging vulnerable learners in Years 10 and 11 through environmental work.
An unused caretaker's house was transformed into an "access lodge" for the vulnerable learners, and surrounding land was redeveloped to allow them to work outdoors and engage with the natural environment.
The site development and management is largely the responsibility of the pupils, who follow a personalised curriculum designed around working outside with animals, plants and on the land, together with additional subjects selected from the school's options programme. Staff have noticed a change in attitude and behaviour among the pupils and their attainment has improved significantly.
Successes such as these demonstrate why learning outdoors is so important for children and young people.
Good for pupils and teachers, too
In 2006, Dr Penny Travlou of OPENspace, a research centre for inclusive access to outdoor environments, conducted a literature review on the subject. It concluded: "Experience of the outdoors and wilderness has the potential to confer a multitude of benefits on young people's physical development, emotional and mental health and well-being and societal development.
"Mental health and well-being benefits from play in natural settings appear to be long-term, realised in the form of emotional stability in young adulthood."
Robinson says a connection with nature is "fundamental" to a child's development: "Research suggests that young people have less space to engage with and explore their relationship with nature. Outdoor learning is important because it gives them an understanding of why they might want a sensible relationship with nature and why society might want one.
"The variety of experiences can engage the mind and body in a way that might be difficult to replicate in the classroom. It brings learning to life and makes things more memorable and interesting."
Hollyhock agrees. "Outdoors, pupils can interact with things in a way they can't do in a classroom environment," she says. "There's such a huge variety of opportunities to be had when you go outside and look around, particularly in the natural environment. There are so many more sensory experiences and things you can do.
"This excites pupils and makes them want to understand more."
Freedom and space are also important factors. "For some children, being confined to a classroom has the same effect as it does on an adult confined to a workplace," Hollyhock says. "Outdoors they are more focused and concentrate more; their attention doesn't wander as easily."
Apart from offering another environment in which they can engage their class, the outdoors can also be stimulating for teachers themselves, Robinson says: "There's probably as much to learn for the teacher engaging in the outdoors as there is for the child."
Institute for Outdoor Learning: www.outdoor-learning.org
Council for Learning Outside the Classroom: www.lotc.org.uk
Learning through Landscapes: www.ltl.org.uk
- Don't just take your normal lesson outside. "The trick is to change the mindset," says Juno Hollyhock of Learning through Landscapes. "Let the outdoors help you to think about what to teach the children."
- There's no such thing as the wrong kind of weather, only the wrong kind of clothing. "Children will follow if the teacher is keen to go outside, regardless of the weather," Hollyhock says.
- Organise weather-appropriate activities and clothing. If it's cold don't do activities that involve sitting on the ground. If it's hot make sure pupils are protected with hats and lotion and that there is shade.
- Build up a stock of clothing for pupils whose parents can't afford to buy their own. "We encourage schools to ask parents to donate old clothing such as welly boots, hats and coats," Hollyhock says. You can also scour charity shops and car boot sales.
WHAT IS OUTDOOR LEARNING?
- Outdoor learning is a broad term that includes outdoor play in the early years, school grounds projects, environmental education, recreational and adventure activities, personal and social development programmes, expeditions, team building, leadership training, management development, education for sustainability, adventure therapy and more. It does not have a clearly defined boundary, but it does have a common core.
- Outdoor learning values direct experience and can provide a dramatic contrast to the indoor classroom. Direct experience is more motivating and has more impact and credibility. Through skilled teaching, interpretation or facilitation, outdoor experiences readily become a stimulating source of fascination, personal growth and breakthroughs in learning.
- In outdoor learning participants learn through what they do, what they encounter and what they discover. Participants learn about the outdoors, themselves and each other, while also learning outdoor skills. Active learning readily develops skills of enquiry, experiment, feedback, reflection, review and cooperative learning.
- Not only does outdoor learning happen in the natural environment where participants can see, hear, touch and smell the real thing, it also happens in an arena where actions have real results and consequences. Outdoor learning can help to bring many school subjects alive while also providing experiential opportunities for pupils to manage risk and to cope with change and adversity.
- It broadens horizons and stimulates new interests. There is no limit to the experiences and curiosities that outdoor environments and activities can arouse. Participants frequently discover potential, abilities and interests that surprise themselves and others. Safety codes provide clear boundaries and learning goals give clear direction, but outdoor learning draws in energy and inspiration from all around.
Source: What is Outdoor Learning?, Dr Roger Greenaway, 2005.