Simply put, outdoor learning belongs on the curriculum. It must be both embedded in all subjects, at all levels, and be implemented as its own stand-alone subject. This may sound like a daunting task to some, but we assure you that it is very much achievable. It is not nearly as tough or time consuming as it sounds to get started. And, most importantly, it’s worth it.
Schools are uniquely positioned to get young people outdoors on a regular basis. Now, we at SOuL (and many of you reading this), want to see outdoor learning weaved into the National Curriculum. And, while we continue to advocate for that, this blog post is more concerned with what can be done today, or very soon, with immediate impacts for pupils.
Evidence tells us that outdoor learning boosts academic output and supports pupils’ overall wellbeing. This is already well documented and discussed, so we focus here on the often-overlooked merits that a strong outdoor learning culture in schools affords pupils. Keep reading and you’ll find some more reasons why and where you should implement more outdoor learning in your school’s curriculum. We’ll also look at a little bit of the how, or at least a place to start!
The here and now
At this stage, schools mostly offer outdoor learning focused enrichment programmes. Now, these are nice and we bet the pupils are enjoying them. We’re also sure these offers look good in the prospectus to attract new pupils, and who doesn’t want that?! It’s lovely to tack on a forest school provision for a half term in EYFS or offer an after school orienteering club at KS3, but these one-off or niche activities alone do not dig deep enough. Outdoor learning must go further in the curriculum to unleash the very real positives it can provide for pupils.
Outdoor learning provision in schools is often sporadic, like a yearly field trip, or targets specific groups of pupils, such as interventions based on behaviour or academic catch up. As a whole, these types of provisions do not cater to everyone. It is important that all pupils have access to outdoor learning and that it’s a staple on their timetable. Pupils predicted to get high grades at GCSE need outdoor learning as much as pupils with poor attendance and additional support needs in class. Hence the need for outdoor learning to be present on the curriculum – to ensure access and equity to the outdoors for all across education.
With such a low-key existing approach, how many pupils are truly engaging with the outdoors and are unlocking the maximum benefits of getting out? We’d argue, very few. It’s time to change that.
Our planet depends on it
Children must be exposed to nature from a young age. As David Attenborough aptly puts it,
“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
The future of our planet requires all of us to be invested in caring for and preserving our natural world. People who are not used to being in nature, or outdoors in any context, are less likely to develop a connection with it and therefore less likely to protect it. Schools have a powerful opportunity to give pupils room to build their own relationships with nature, with teaching and learning outside wherever possible. It’s a two way street, young people gain when they spend time in nature too.
Exposures and experiences in nature should be regular, start in EYFS then continue all the way through to KS4 and beyond. Time can be found in the regular school day to get outside – an improv game for drama or a history timeline exercise could be done just as well on the school field as in the classroom for example. Just think, you can kickstart the benefits of outdoor learning tomorrow by rethinking how and where you teach your existing material!
Ready to face the world
The world can be a tough place to navigate. For all of the joy and wonder that life brings, it’s also full of challenges and problems to solve. As it stands, our education system does not best prepare young people to tackle all the things life will throw at them. The inclusion of character development in the curriculum can help fill the void, with a few caveats.
Right now, many schools are already using character education (sometimes called teambuilding or character development) as a tool, but usually as part of a stand-alone event or annual trip. There are some schools who have worked regular character education into their PE curriculum or tutor group time, these may be good places to start for you.
Pupils who engage with character education on a regular basis build confidence and self-esteem. They develop communication and problem-solving skills, and learn to work well with others. And, more often than not, character education is taught outside, as it should be, which improves everyone’s mood and boosts overall wellbeing.
Character education works best as a timetabled subject that starts with the school year and runs all the way through until the summer holidays. Grit, perseverance, respect, empathy and so on are all traits to be honed throughout our lives, they can’t be picked up in one half day session or field trip. The work happens over time.
If you’re new to character education and want more information on what it is and achieves, we can help, simply send us a message.
Make the outdoors an option for everyone
Many schools desire more pupils to sign up for the Duke of Edinburgh Award or an adventure based outdoor programme like canoeing, or even a nature club. What often ends up happening is the pupils who join these extra-curricular activities will do them anyway in some form. Their families take or have taken them to try outdoor experiences, or they will down the road. It’s much harder to encourage children who have not spent much time outdoors to sign up, but who can blame them? They don’t know what to expect, don’t know what kind of things they like to do outdoors and it’s all new.
KS3 pupils need opportunities to learn basic outdoor skills so they can make informed choices about which activities to try as they age through school. A young person who has tried map reading, rock climbing or walking in nature will be more likely to join a school club or D of E programme that takes them outdoors and teaches them valuable life skills. When outdoor learning is part of the timetable at school, children not only reap the immediate benefits of spending time outdoors, they also start to feel more comfortable outside, and in natural settings. This opens up a whole new world of activities, experiences and places for them to explore.
For example, Wokingham Bohunt School has implemented outdoor education for one period each week for year 7 pupils. It evolved from being a part of their PE curriculum into its own subject. They even offer climbing as a GCSE subject. It can and is being done.
Ultimately, this approach will take a bit more time and planning than simply going outside for an existing planned lesson, but the rewards are huge. Outdoor learning of any kind can spark a lifelong interest in outdoor pursuits, nature and provide a greater level of comfort in trying new things.
More play = happier humans
Here’s a quick honourable mention for play. It’s hard to talk about outdoor learning without mentioning outdoor play. They are interconnected with each other in so many ways. Play matters and the more time we make for it in school schedules the better. It is possible to build in more learning through play right away for many of us, even for a little bit each day or week! Long term curriculum planning should always involve play as a vehicle for learning.
Play is crucial for all ages. It keeps us moving, makes us happy and allows us to think outside the box. Loose parts and other creative open-ended play are especially powerful. Children learn to communicate, compromise and collaborate when they play. There are schools who have worked hard to incorporate play into their curriculum for children throughout their education, and it shows.
Take time to understand the current state of outdoor learning in your setting. Some important questions to ask yourself and others within your organisation are:
- How long are pupils spending outside?
- How often are pupils learning outside each day, week, term etc.?
- What are pupils doing when they go outside? Is it play, traditional learning, character education, PE, bushcraft, outdoor recreation?
- Who is participating in outdoor learning and why? Who is not, why?
- Who is facilitating pupils’ time outside? Do they have special training, and do they need it, or not?
- Where can pupils go to spend time outside? What space and/or materials can they use?
- What do we hope to achieve from pupils leaning outside the classroom? Are we meeting our goals?
These answers will give you a good idea of what the current state of outdoor learning is in your setting and help to plan the next steps. As you well know, the planning for next year starts now. It’s hard to make fundamental changes in education midway through the academic year (this is not to say smaller changes can’t be made along the way, they certainly can). This is the time to start conversations and share ideas.
Most of us want children to leave school prepared to face the world. Learning outside the classroom undoubtedly helps them do that. Outdoor learning is multi-faceted and has a lot to offer children and educators. Simply stepping outside of the classroom is positive. Taking it further and embedding outdoor learning at every stage of a child’s education is also necessary. It matters for the future of our planet, children’s wellbeing today and in the future, as well as for their readiness for adulthood.
Outdoor learning belongs on the curriculum, let’s make it happen.
What change will you make now? What’s your outdoor learning goal for the next academic year? Let us know your thoughts and share ideas here.