Enjoy this interview with Gemma Hill-Davis, a free-roaming Outdoor Practitioner based in Cheshire in North West England. Gemma runs a small outdoor learning company called Camp Curiosity CIC and has just celebrated 6 months since launching the company and being self employed. These answers are full of insights into starting an outdoor learning or Forest School programme in school, as well as some great reasons for why you should.
Tell us about your professional outdoor learning journey
In the very early days of Secondary Drama teaching I used to take my classes outside as much as I could, so I suppose my professional journey began there. I was then fortunate to manage the education centre and nature reserve at Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station. The nature reserve was under-utilised so I went on a Forest School course and as many other outdoor learning CPD courses as I could, along with joining the IOL for support. I began to create educational resources linked to the curriculum that allowed service users to explore the nature reserve in all seasons. The National Curriculum linked days became really popular so I began to expand our offer to different service users.
I enhanced the site with sensory gardens, composting area, barefoot walk, outdoor classroom and a woodland area similar to a Forest School area. We began to host community events and seasonally linked festivals that soon became the highlight of the year for many in the local community.
Sadly I was made redundant due to closure of the site and then shortly afterwards Covid-19 made its appearance and I found myself homeschooling my little girl Marthy, then 5. Marthy has always loved the rain, always loved the wind in her face and the freedom she feels when being outside. Being around her on a daily basis and with life slowing down, we were able to take our learning outside so that’s what we did. Over lockdown we took as many subjects, lessons and topics outside as possible. A powerpoint maths lesson from school about tally charts became a gathering of sticks in the woodland, a tree identification challenge and a stick tally chart on the woodland floor. Marthy had achieved what the lesson wanted her to, she had evidence of her understanding and learning as I took photos, but we also got to top up our vitamin D, breathe in fresh air, introduce some environmental science, get some exercise and have fun running around trying to find sticks.
We would be outside (even if it was just in our garden at the times we couldn’t venture any further) for at least 3 hours every day and I felt and witnessed the benefits of this. Marthy’s approach to learning changed, she became more independent, asked more questions, showed more interest and was always hungry to know more; often meaning our school day surpassed 3pm and went well into the evenings. The learning was engaging, fun, diverse and experiential.
Where did you go from there?
Once Marthy was due to go back to school I knew I needed to continue my adventures in outdoor learning. I secured myself a position of outdoor learning Lead in a large Cheshire primary. I got stuck in straight away despite suffering from post-Covid related issues and loved improving the site with different zones for the children to explore. The position was a lot more work than one person could manage and the more I did, the more people asked me why not go solo and set up my own company? So, in February 2022 I took the decision to leave my school and launch my little outdoor learning company, Camp Curiosity CIC and I am so pleased that I did.
Why do you think outdoor learning matters?
A participant of The HAPPEN project sums it up beautifully here:
“When we go out to the woods we don’t really know we’re doing it but we’re actually doing maths and we’re doing English, so it’s just making it educational and fun at the same time.”
Being outdoors allows for more cross curricular learning in an environment that already elicits awe, wonder and curiosity. Outdoor learning allows children to build on or acquire skills such as problem solving, resilience, self esteem and team building. At the same time it enhances their positive mental health through a boost in vitamin D and time spent in the fresh air. The evidence of such is now starting to come in thick and fast. Outdoor learning in schools is certainly becoming more understood through its benefits to the pupils, staff, community and school grounds.
Outdoor learning matters so much to me because I see and hear the benefits of it in the children I work with. These benefits are not short lived and the experiences they have outdoors will remain with them, unlike many of the powerpoint presentations they view in the classroom. I bumped into a little boy the other day who I used to teach about 2 years ago and he went on to tell me some facts about frogs and toads whilst retelling the time he found a toad in one of our sessions. I am doubtful whether children can easily remember facts like this from a powerpoint or worksheet in the classroom.
What is the difference between outdoor learning and forest school? Are they the same?
This is a question I get asked a lot! I believe there is quite a large difference in both delivery and outcome. The Forest School approach is more child led and focuses on the individual child, it is an ethos with guided principles. Outdoor learning is a holistic approach that runs through the fabric of school life. Often Forest School is viewed as a bolt on, a standalone subject or session (due to its child-led approach). Whereas outdoor learning has the benefit of being able to plan in the moment and follow the lead of the learners whilst supporting the themes and topics being explored in the classroom.
Is it best to start a forest school programme or focus on general outdoor learning? Why?
This is a super question as it is one that headteachers ask me a lot. I am a firm supporter of Forest School and all that the Forest School Association is doing, along with the Nature Premium campaign. However, the majority of the schools I work with are not able to allow for the long-term process of regular sessions nor the ratios of practitioners to children that the ethos requires. I have had some experiences whereby headteachers say they would like a forest school on site, but once the long term continuity of sessions and ratios are explored by SLT (senior leadership team) it has quickly become apparent that a Forest School is not going to work in their setting.
Personally, I would recommend that schools start with an outdoor learning approach that allows the children to build on their physical literacy and play skills. Then move onto a more seasonal approach so that both children and staff acquire a good understanding of their school grounds. Next move towards embedding outdoor learning within their existing curriculum alongside some CPD for staff so that it is sustainable i.e. the school can now manage it without me. This doesn’t mean that the children miss out on the more typical Forest School activities, these can be planned for within this approach too. For example, fire lighting can take place within the Stone Age topic, den building can link to a science enquiry etc.
By following this approach I am hopeful that I am giving the schools the knowledge, permission, freedom and confidence to be able to plan for outdoor learning opportunities within every subject area, every year and be a part of every school day. My hope is that outdoor learning then becomes synonymous with learning, another teaching approach. And that once the teachers see how beneficial it is to the learners and themselves they will do more of it!
How do you go about starting an outdoor learning and/or forest school provision at school?
Firstly, I would ask the headteacher what their vision is and what they want the learners to achieve. If they are focusing on a small group of pupils who are struggling with skills such as self esteem, transition, self confidence and relationships, the forest school approach might be the best fit. In this case, I would recommend that they seek a FS practitioner to initially run some sessions. Then review these after a block of sessions or two before embarking on paying for existing staff training. If the school is then looking to lead a Forest School provision as opposed to contracting the service into school they need to look at FSA endorsed level 3 training providers and enlist an interested and passionate staff member or more to undertake the training and establish the Forest School.
If it is an outdoor learning provision that is required then schools can contact an Outdoor Learning practitioner like me or an outdoor learning education provider. When a school does not have the budget for either of these they can begin their outdoor learning journey by applying for local funding. I recommend applying for the Learning Through Landscapes grant but a list of funding suggestions can be found here.
What advice would you give to school teams?
My biggest piece of advice to schools starting a provision is to fully understand what it is they want to be able to do and not just what it is they want. They also need to have done some consultancy with the pupils, staff and wider school community. Despite which learning approach they take they will require a person who is passionate and knowledgeable about the outdoors to take a lead. Also recommended is to visit other schools that have gone on the journey, talk to them about the benefits and how they incorporated outdoor learning into the 3/5 year plan. Ask them what were the stumbling blocks?
Get reading! Place some outdoor learning books in the staffroom. Create a display board. Put it on the newsletter. Invite parents for a stay and play session. Take lots of photos to share. My last piece of advice is to enlist the local community and let people know what it is you need. Whether it be pots and pans for a mud kitchen or sticks for wand making, make an area for items to be dropped off and keep asking!
What benefits have you seen for your pupils when they take part in outdoor learning?
So many. The benefit I notice the most is happiness. The smiles, laughter and joy during the learning is there to see and hear and it is wonderful. I have also been informed of benefits to literacy lessons when linked to an activity the children have done outside. Teachers have shown me the writing that has come afterwards and they have noted the improvements made. Schools and parents have also commented on the impact sessions have had on emotional, social and physical skills.
Has teaching outdoors benefitted you and those you work with?
Just being outdoors benefits me, I am not good at being indoors for any longer than a couple of hours! I love the flexibility to follow the children’s interests and curiosity when outdoors. I used to follow my meticulous lesson plans to the exact letter and time when teaching. Although this was actively praised by the school and Ofsted, I now relish being able to stop a session and take on a new direction due to a child finding something or noticing something I haven’t or a question being asked that I hadn’t thought of or don’t know the answer to! I too am still learning about our amazing environment and I make sure that the children I teach know this. We go on a journey together each session and I learn an enormous amount from them, something I don’t ever remember doing inside four walls of the classroom with my learning objective and aims written on the board.
I currently work with upwards of seven schools and teachers will thank me for the sessions often saying that they learnt something new or how much of a pleasure it was to see x doing something they wouldn’t do in class. Sometimes they just say “ I needed that fresh air”.
So, what are you waiting for? Get outside.
Gemma, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. To find out more about Camp Curiosity click here. To talk with us at SOuL about your outdoor learning provision contact us.
All photos from Camp Curiosity CIC.