Let’s talk to Paul Oldham, a long time proponent of outdoor learning as both a class teacher and deputy head. We wanted to find out more about setting up a new outdoor learning program and how to build it. Paul has a lot of great ideas and enthusiasm for getting children outside that we can all take inspiration from!
Tell us about your own professional journey in the outdoor learning world?
Before I was a teacher I always had a love for the outdoors. I discovered mountain climbing at university and learned that being outside made me feel good. However, when I started teaching I wasn’t focused on outdoor learning particularly and the two were separate to begin with. I did like to take children outside at any opportunity though and I began to connect the dots. This was outdoor learning and we needed more of it. It is obvious that some children learn well in the classroom and others need to be outside.
In a new role as the Deputy Head at Richmond House School in North Leeds, I presented to the school governors about outdoor learning. The goal was to provide equal access to outdoor learning for all pupils. Luckily, I had the support of the PTA and senior leadership team as well. There was no special set up then, just fields and a few trees. It dawned on me how passionate I am about the outdoors and learned that outdoor learning is a powerful way to build community. Things took off from there. Over a number of years I have developed a successful outdoor learning programme, small steps lead to large leaps.
How did you go about building a culture of outdoor learning at your school?
It is key to have the support of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) first and foremost. I knew how important that was and I did a lot of reading and research before presenting any decisions. Parents were on board instantly, I had the support of SLT and the governing body so we were in a good place. It’s about creating an ethos of using the outdoors to support the learning of the children. I was a one man band in the beginning taking on everything from resource creation to maintenance to teaching. I feel so strongly about children being outside, that it was worth the hard work (and it is hard work)!
Through walks with parents and camps on site for new parents as a mixer for old and new, I shared my love of the outdoors in other ways. This approach encourages parents to take their children outdoors outside of school and connects what we do in school with what happens after.
The PTA raised funds for a yurt to create a permanent base for outdoor learning, in all weathers. At this point I was teaching most of the outdoor learning sessions from nursery through to year 6. I worked closely with class teachers to connect what they were teaching in the classroom with the outdoor lesson plan. Sometimes teachers would highlight a challenge they had been having in their class with me and I would focus on that in the outdoor classroom. Staff began to see the real value of outdoor learning.
What challenges do you face as an outdoor learning focused class teacher?
The biggest challenge is encouraging staff to do something different outside. Over time, teachers did start to get out. It’s still a struggle to get staff going today but we work on it. I made a decision to resign from Deputy Head to become a class teacher again and focus further on outdoor learning. I could then lead Inset for staff and the program grew and grew.
What does the outdoor learning provision look like at your current school?
We do have plenty of space to get outside and we are lucky in that respect. The main thing is to get them away – go to a completely different area of the school (or make it feel that way). The walking process itself is valuable especially for small children, you can make a game or activity of this kind of movement.
The activities at my school are linked to the curriculum, bushcraft or team building but it is all connected to what is happening in the classroom. Character development is an important part of it all, it must not be ignored. Staff get that outdoor learning is important for the children and I am still encouraging them to get outside. We need to provide resources and ideas for teachers. Let enthusiastic staff run with it and lead the way, always with that buy in from SLT.
Now, I’m creating a programme for outdoor learning where all the children have opportunities to experience a wide range of things. We evaluate what children are getting out of it, how they approach activities and cope with different scenarios. There are programmes for wellbeing, geography and map skills, bushcraft, tool skills, biodiversity, conservation and beyond.
Why do you think outdoor learning matters?
Being outside is a great soul soother. Going back many years, teachers would take children outside as they fancied and now we have lost all of that. Children react differently when they are outside. You see their characters come out. The quiet ones often shine outside. Covid has pushed people outside again and schools are coming around to the idea.
We talk about going for a walk as adults to clear our heads, the same strategy works for kids. There are high pressures and expectations put on children and taking them outside helps relieve some of that. You see children happy to learn outside. In addition, outdoor learning provides a level playing field to access curriculum information.
Team building activities show us different leaders and thinkers, all things you could easily miss in a traditional classroom. The outdoors gives children a chance to think critically and they often surprise you. This continues to excite me as an educator and outdoor enthusiast.
Where do you hope to see outdoor learning in the future national curriculum for schools?
We’ve got to have a national curriculum, but I think there should be an expectation that this learning happens outdoors as much as possible and includes learning from the outdoors. It should not simply be an outdoor learning module, but an integration between curriculum content and the outdoors.
Character building should have a place in the curriculum, problem solving and discussion are important life skills with self reflection. There must be an individual growth focus, rather than children being generally assessed or tested. This means learning there is no right or wrong answer – it’s about learning there is more than one way of doing things.
Schools offer residential trips to outdoor centres which is great but we need to work more on what we do before and after. The value of the trip and the experience is then that much more meaningful. We need to connect the work done on the trip with the day to day learning that happens in schools.
Where should heads and teachers start with outdoor learning for their pupils?
First of all, no one should be worried about the space they’ve got. You need someone in your organisation with the energy and drive to move it forward. Then, tap into that enthusiasm and encourage them. Present the benefits of outdoor learning to the senior team and get them on board. Don’t go mad, start with small steps. There’s no need for lots of space or stuff – start small and make changes bit by bit. Put a plan in place to help it continue. Your point person must have support, they need a small team to work together. It can’t come down to just one person.
Many people get hung up on cost and budget. I often go onto FB pages and request things e.g. Does anyone have spare wood to donate? It’s a great way to recycle materials and get the things you need for free.
One of my favourite things I requested is old grain or potato sacks, I got 25 in the end. I washed and dyed them green and made them into Saxon outfits for a whole class. It took time of course, but it was worth it. Other things I’ve requested from my local community and made use of are pallets, gutters, old keys and more. Start small and build from there.