In this new series of School Spotlight blog posts we talk to educators on the ground and get their take on outdoor learning in school.
We talked to Todd Raetzke, the Director of Outdoor Education at the Bohunt Education Trust, where he oversees various outdoor learning programmes at each school. The Costello School in Basingstoke, where he spends a lot of his time, has an integrated outdoor learning provision. The school has 3 outdoor canopy classrooms built by SOuL and one additional outdoor classroom space. Let’s find out more about how they use their classrooms and the impact learning outside can have.
Tell us about the outdoor learning provision at The Costello School?
Yes, most of the outdoor learning provision is aimed at KS3 pupils at Costello. All year 7 and 8 pupils do a 6-week programme as a part of the PE curriculum. In groups of 12-15 they come outdoors to do a mix of bushcraft, environmental education, conservation projects and character education.
We also do various outdoor interventions for small groups of pupils to support wellness and academic success. Some of these pupils might be new year 7’s who are struggling to settle in and make friends. Others might not be responding well to the traditional classroom setting and benefit from getting outside and trying a new approach.
Finally, we send groups on a week-long residential farm stay where they get involved with all aspects of farm life such as animal care and cooking.
Each of these elements of outdoor learning target different groups and their needs.
How do you and the team use the outdoor canopy classrooms at Costello?
In addition to the programmes I’ve talked about already as part of the outdoor learning curriculum, the outdoor classrooms are used for a number of other things. Pupils like to hang out in them during breaks which is great. Small group meetings are held in them for clubs. The CCF runs programmes in them and makes use of the covered space for all ages. The school runs a special outdoor learning day as a reward for pupils who are excelling at school as well.
The outdoor classrooms were crucial during the toughest parts of the pandemic to keep children learning and safe in an outdoor environment.
Why do you think outdoor learning matters?
The outdoors provides a place for kinesthetic learning (learning by doing) and the traditional classroom doesn’t always provide that. Plenty of pupils respond best to getting stuck into a physical activity and learn a lot about themselves and the subject matter.
It’s important for many pupils to be outside for their own wellbeing and mental health. I see pupils cheer up when they step into the outdoor classroom. They are able to recharge their batteries for the rest of the day. When we teach outdoors pupils have an open space to think outside the box and be truly creative. They come up with fantastic ideas and are not afraid to fail after a few sessions.
What impact do you see for pupils who spend time learning outdoors?
Pupils’ overall wellbeing tends to improve and we often see a change in outlook about school in general. Being outdoors regularly with a group builds a sense of community for pupils who feel lost at school or disengaged. It can help them to refocus on their academic achievement and realise their self worth.
I see confidence building everywhere for pupils too in the outdoors. They get a sense of accomplishment they don’t always get elsewhere such as starting the fire or planting a tree.
Where do you hope to see outdoor learning in the future national curriculum?
I hope to see outdoor learning as a timetabled subject for all pupils with a progressive curriculum that leads to relevant certifications and qualifications. Outdoor learning has immense value as a stand alone subject. Not only that but it links all subjects together – there is huge cross curriculum potential.
What do you enjoy most about teaching outdoors?
Pupils can make mistakes, learn from them and succeed. The biggest thing I find when students first come out is that they are afraid to do something wrong and think that they only have one chance at something. This is not true in the outdoor classroom. We work on resilience building and encourage pupils not to give up too easily. And then when they do cook that meal or figure out the STEM experiment, the sense of accomplishment is wonderful to see.
I also like teaching practical life skills that are otherwise skipped over like planting something in the ground or tying a knot. It’s a great environment to be in with young people. Now, we just need to get more pupils out, more often!