Let’s take this outside – ideas for outdoor learning in the humanities and beyond

Written by David Alcock, www.alcockblog.wordpress.com

Using your senses in the outdoors

The festive period often involves an assault on the senses – which might not be such a bad thing, when the light levels are low and the days are at their shortest.  Perhaps now is a good time to consider how learners can use their senses more fully when they engage in outdoor learning.  Here are a few ideas which might assist in this task.

Ways of seeing

Rather than asking students to follow a pre-set trail, why not encourage them to look around them in more inventive and immersive ways? The Field Studies Council suggest asking students to pick cards, upon which are written different ‘ways of seeing’ – one might be to find a line (such as the edge of a flower bed) and follow it; another could be to look up and follow a bird; a third is to sit on a bench and observe people’s behaviour for five minutes.

Documenting the journey

When students are asked to document their outdoor experiences, for example in Geography fieldwork or art or nature walks, facilitators can struggle to encourage them to take enough photos or sketches.  One way to do this is to give each group an object – like a small rubber duck – and ask them to photograph it in as many places as possible – perhaps offer a prize to the ‘winning’ team.  As well an introducing an element of fun and competitiveness, this should also result in a rich bank of resources for students to reflect on after their trip.


Another way of immersing students in to an environment is to get them to turn around and close their eyes for a minute or two, focussing on what they can hear, then ask them to note it down free form, or in a more structured way, as shown by the urban soundscape wheel shown below.  The results could then be plotted on a map using a radial/compass diagram, or tallied and graphed, or turned into a word cloud, for later discussion.



Academics have recently turned their attention to olfactory differences in environments.  Pausing for a similar length of time as for the soundscape experiment above, ask students to close their eyes and focus on what they can smell.  Their results could simply be transferred onto a continuum of pleasant to unpleasant, and this could lead to a discussion of how subjective these terms are.  An alternative might be to quantify their results, and potentially graph them, using the Urban Smellscape Aroma Wheel shown below.



Many of the techniques mentioned here could be included in projects where learners are encouraged to empathise with people with sensory impairments.  Blindfolds or vision impaired glasses could also be used sensitively in this way.  In an alternative slant on this, learners could get on their knees to get a child’s-level view, or indeed a view of a wheelchair user, and take photos from both perspectives, for later analysis and discussion.

Try it!

The author has tried these techniques with learners in Key Stage 3, 4, 5, and adults – and some of them have gone on to incorporate them in their studies such as Independent Investigations for A Level Geography.  Why not try them with younger children, or in other subjects?  Or there may be fertile ground in comparing results between learners of different ages – could you use these techniques when planning activities involving learners of different ages, and comparing the results?  Let us know how it went.  Whatever you do, good luck, and season’s greetings.