Many years ago, I was asked by the then DCSF (Department for Children. Schools and Families) to visit a nursery in London that was very successfully incorporating outdoor learning into the learning on offer to the children. Whatever the weather, the children would make their way to a nearby woodland to spend time in the outdoor environment, learning both about nature, and how to be in nature. I still recall my visit vividly. It was a cold, wet day, but the children and staff were wrapped up in all-weather gear and great learning was had by all.
Fast forward to today and learning outdoors has never been so vital, not just for the demonstrable benefits it offers but also for increased safety in the Covid-19 era of teaching. If we are teaching indoors, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that, “Ventilation is an important factor in preventing the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading indoors.” The WHO suggests that natural ventilation is utilised if possible, by keeping windows open to ensure air flow in indoor space. With the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 being significantly higher inside than outside, schools must take this fully on board if staff and their families, and children and their families, are to be as safe as possible. Even as the weather cools, keep those windows open!
The Institute for Outdoor Learning “champions safe activities and effective learning in the outdoors”. As an organisation it is keen to promote the benefits to come from discovery, experimentation, learning about and connecting to the natural world, and engaging in environmental and adventure activities. The benefits it cites to be derived from getting outdoors, aside from the obvious Covid-19-related benefits of a reduced risk of the spread of infection, include boosts to academic achievement, personal and social development, employability, wellbeing and mental health. “Purposeful experiences in the outdoors can be a catalyst for powerful and memorable learning,” says the IOL.
Outdoor learning, however, is often associated with zip wires and fire circles, raft racing and shelter building. Worthwhile as those activities obviously are, there is little reason why just about every subject in the curriculum can’t have at least some time outside if space allows. For example:
- Maths lessons can use the landscape, allow children to physically be a part of maths, use the space for construction projects, and all the maths associated with purposeful building and creation. Problem-solving can be tailored to the outside environment.
- Humanities subjects can make great use of the outside environment. For example, historical journeys in the locality can take place entirely outside, as can enquiry-based learning using the history of the environment around the school. There are many dimensions of RE teaching that would transfer effectively to the outdoor environment. Visits to places of worship, explorations of pilgrimage, enactments of stories that are key in world religions and so on all transfer effectively from the classroom to the outdoors. Geography is similarly transferable to the outdoors through studies of the locality at the very least.
- English sits very well outdoors in particular by using the environment as inspiration for creative writing, but you can also explore just about any aspect of what happens indoors, outdoors.
These scant ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. A detailed exploration of the curriculum in any school will reveal countless opportunities to leave the classroom behind. How can we ensure that we grab every opportunity to learn outdoors, at the very least while SARS-CoV-2 is a major consideration? These ideas may help:
- Work with colleagues to find opportunities for outdoor learning across the curriculum. Be ambitious, especially while ventilation is so crucial.
- Plan your resources well ahead so that you are ready to go, maximising the time you have outside.
- There is no such thing as bad weather if you have adequate clothing for being outside. This may present some issues for some children, but by working with parents on your reasons for doing more outside, those issues may be minimised.
- Work on learning outdoors becoming a whole school commitment. While this is not possible for every school due to the constraints of the space around the buildings, it is possible for many. If as many teachers are on board as possible, the opportunities that children have for learning outside will blossom.
- Aim to improve your outdoor environment if possible so that it is more conducive to learning across the curriculum. Are there any local businesses who can support you in this aim?
I often wonder how much outdoor learning those nursery children all those years ago got as they moved up through their school careers. So often, it seems, children get to learn outdoors when they are very young, but those opportunities diminish the older they get. It is heartening to see classes as old as 10, 11 and beyond having lessons outdoors. But it makes sense, at this time when ventilation and air quality are so crucial to good health, to get outside at every opportunity as we move on through the winter.
Find out more…
- Transforming outdoor learning in schools is a useful document exploring the benefits of outdoor learning.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.