How to Maximse Your School Grounds For Outdoor Learning
This year we have worked with in excess of 120 schools across the UK and have been incredibly proud to support them on their journey of taking their teaching and learning outdoors. We are seeing a massive surge of enthusiasm for this type of pedagogy and for very good reason.
It’s Based on Evidence
A growing body of evidence is illustrating the many benefits for our pupils (and staff) of spending time learning outdoors. From engaging learners, improving behaviour, raising attainment, supporting health and wellbeing, reducing stress and making learning more enjoyable. Look up the Natural Connections Demonstration Project to learn more.
This is especially poignant when we consider the average child spends less time outside these days than a maximum security prison inmate. Not only this but the average unsupervised roaming range of an 8 year old has dropped from 6 miles to 300m in the past 100 years.
As educators we may not have had the benefit of being taught outside ourselves (in fact most teachers we meet would subscribe to this) nor was our teacher training conducted in this way and so it’s no wonder that learning outside is not routine among many UK schools.
We’d like to change that and give children the opportunity to learn about themselves and their school subjects in the setting that Homo sapiens have always learnt in, the natural environment.
Unsurprisingly we come across a number of very real and almost universal ‘hurdles’. They fall into 3 main themes:
“Where do I go”? – The need for a ‘hub’, outdoor classroom or at least a ‘meeting and seating area’ is essential in order to enable effective outdoor teaching and learning to take place.
“What do I do”? – A real concern amongst staff is that lots of time and effort will need to be spent creating new lesson plans and resourcing effective learning activities that they just do not have in the midst of a busy teaching schedule.
“How do I find the time”? – A genuine (but dare we say it, often misplaced view) is that the outdoor teaching and learning sessions will need to take place in addition to the teaching that takes place in the classroom, rather than as a complementary element to it. Good quality outdoor learning will provide meaning and context to the classroom teaching.
Become a Hurdler
If you are serious about learning outside the classroom, then the single greatest first step that schools can take is to select a site or for the ‘hub’ in your grounds. It should, ideally, be easily accessible, well drained and sheltered, suitable for all ages and offer the capacity for structured teaching by having seating and simple, natural visual aids. This may require some clearance and preparation but this can be done at very low cost or even via a parent working party.
The common misconception is that significant budgets need to be found in order to create an outdoor teaching area or classroom. Our hearts often sink when we visit schools that have spent significant sums of money installing rather sterile wooden gazebos in the corner of a playground. They can be a little inflexible and often don’t allow for and encourage outdoor teaching and learning.
So at one end of the spectrum you can simply place wooden logs or rustic benches. If funding for such a facility is genuinely non-existent then simply get children to carry out chairs or gym benches to create the meeting and seating facility. It’s good to start this way and then see how things develop in terms of teacher enthusiasm, optimum sites to use and the type of activities that might take place.
For schools that are teaching and learning outdoors regularly you will not want to be constrained by rain and inclement weather. Having a canopy or shelter can be an attractive addition. For quite low cost you can suspend and tension tarpaulins from trees or poles or even parachutes which can be purchased for a couple of hundred pounds. As it is conical in shape it could also be tensioned at its perimeter base using poles and guys to create greater rigidity.
For more rugged and longer-term installations you could also consider an outdoor canopy classroom.
They provide a number of significant advantages over more permanent wooden structures as follows:
- Planning permission generally not required
- They cost half the price of an equivalent sized wooden structure
- They can be raised and lowered for cleaning and maintenance
- They provide a rustic and inspiring teaching space for 35 people that is more in-keeping with the natural environments in which they are generally placed
- Lighting of fires (in specially constructed pits) is generally safer than in and around wooden structures.
Fit for Purpose
The finished canopies create large, natural looking and highly versatile hubs
that allow for most aspects of curricula and extra curricula teaching and learning to take place for all ages. The canopies can have a life span of up to 7 years, after which time they can simply be replaced at a fraction of the costs of the original installation.
Where schools have greater budgets then obviously the thinking can shift to more permanent installations through wooden structures.
Whatever the design we believe that it’s important to get the aesthetic right to suit the location in which it will be installed. Outdoor classrooms installed close to the main school buildings may require a more polished look, whereas those in natural areas and woodland spaces benefit from a more rustic design and build. For designs of this scale planning consents and building regulations will inevitably apply.
Keep it Portable
We always propose that seating is kept portable and other useful items such as tables, visual aids etc. are also capable of being added, removed and layouts altered to suit the group size and teaching activity. Walls and protection can also be removable according to the weather and activity.
Well constructed and rugged gazebos or mini barn style designs can work really well and look spectacular.
Open fires are generally not a good idea inside such classrooms but wood burning stoves provide a safer option with the right protections and a flue for smoke and fumes to escape. You could also consider installing a separate seating area and fire pit outside the wooden classroom at a safe distance from it.
School Outdoor Learning are able to design and install all of the different options outlined above. We would be very happy to visit your school and discuss your requirements to fit within budgets and ambitions.