Try the great outdoors as a learning environment

26th February 2016 at 00:00
An outdoor classroom gives children a thrill and makes every lesson an event

The hot topic at breakfast club was “making poo” – and it was my fault. Or rather, it was the fault of our outdoor classroom, for which I am the lead teacher. We had been teaching the students about the digestive system and, true to the values of the outdoor classroom, we had done so in a practical way. This had armed two students in the hall with numerous “gross” and “horrible” anecdotes.

These breakfast performances have been common since we set up our outdoor classroom. It’s not always down to “gruesome” lessons but the fact that the students learn through different methods. And it is has been highly successful in many different ways.

The school has always had a tradition of outdoor working, thanks to the nine acres it sits upon, but in 2008 this was formalised with a dedicated space and curriculum time for “outdoor” lessons.

Initially, the idea was to use a temporary building, opened in time for autumn half-term in 2008, but after 18 months of fundraising, we eventually had enough money for a purpose-built, state-of-the-art “ecology classroom”.

The headteacher’s vision for the project was simple: to provide children with opportunities. Too many straitjackets had been placed on us by the curriculum – we wanted an “alternative” curriculum to support the school. Emphasis was placed on social and practical skills not catered for enough in the national curriculum.

Every class would visit the outdoor classroom once a fortnight, and all would receive a similar curriculum package, irrespective of age and the weather.

Getting close to nature

We’ve now been going for eight years. As the lead teacher, I aim to deliver a mixture of science, history, geography and ecology in the most creative way I can, with the greatest of all resources: the great outdoors.

We have a great building: part-classroom, part drying room (which enables us to kit the children out for all weathers) and partresearch facility. I am joined by two teaching assistants to deliver the curriculum. The lessons support the teaching that happens in the main classrooms. We created a year map, extracting elements of the curriculum that could easily be covered outdoors. This includes lots of the “living things” for science, “ancient Britain” and some key skills for geography. As well as this, we support key skills for art, DT and IT. Most importantly though, we nurture independence, problem-solving and interest in what is happening in the environment.

For the “poo” lesson, our objective was to look at the human digestive system and what does what. So, what better way to learn about it than to be part of it?

We “stretched” the digestive processes from one end of our outside area to the other (showing the children the length of human innards if we were to stretch them out), creating the different digestive processes along the way. A mixture of fruit, vegetables and bread was chewed, swallowed, mashed, liquefied, squeezed, sieved and moulded.

Flexibility is key

The curriculum map is flexible and we have spaces for current interests and events, while constant observation and assessment means that I can tailor future work to ensure that it is challenging while also being as engaging as possible. Examples include fire-making, birdwatching and making bird feeders.

The building itself is a resource, too. On the roof, we have solar panels, which provide electricity for the school, and we have a heat wall, which takes its heat from deep in the ground. The lights are controlled by the intensity of light outside. Students are able to see where their energy comes from and are taught about sustainable energy.

Being in a different environment changes many of our students in a positive way. They feel more comfortable outside the confines of the traditional set-up: desks and chairs are not conducive to learning for everyone and some get more enjoyment from a more physical way of learning.

As our lesson aims are open, we encourage writing, reading and maths skills, but it is speaking, listening and problem-solving that are how we measure outcome. Quite often, we are able to engage those pupils who tend to struggle academically.

We believe the outside classroom has been integral to the school’s success (we have twice been rated outstanding by Ofsted) and we recommend the approach to other schools; you can do much of what we do without an actual dedicated classroom.

The outside classroom at our school supports academic learning, but it also helps us support pupils to become individuals. And, best of all, the kids love it.

Jo Tester teaches at Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire

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