Following months of remote learning during lockdown, many pupils have now unplugged their devices, dug out their uniforms and headed back to class.
Alongside the academic benefits of being back in the classroom, pupils will be looking forward to reconnecting with friends and reengaging with wider school life, and outdoor learning has the potential to form a valuable part of this process.
Outdoor learning can enable children to get motivated, get active, to improve their connection with the natural world and so much more. Plus, it is a great antidote to lockdown cabin fever!
Learning and motivation
In recent months, there has been lots of discussion about what schools’ priorities should be when pupils head back to class. Pupils’ experiences of remote education have varied greatly by household income. In a survey from The Sutton Trust, only five per cent of teachers in state schools reported all their students having a device.
There is, therefore, an understandable concern about ‘lost learning’ and a fear that the pandemic threatens to worsen existing educational inequalities.
In response, Kevan Collins, the DfE’s new ‘education recovery tsar’, has stressed that quality teaching is the “very best intervention for catch-up”, but others have called for a broader view. In particular, a Parent Ping survey in February 2021 found that most parents actually felt an “increased focus on socialisation and mental wellbeing” would be best for their children following lockdown. The outdoors could be an important part of this process, with 70 per cent of the 1,501 eight-15 year olds surveyed by Natural England expressing a desire to spend more time outside with friends in the future.
Thankfully, these aims are not mutually exclusive. Outdoor learning can involve a fusion of developing new knowledge while at the same time helping children re-engage with their peers along the way. A recent pilot delivered by the charity Learning Through Landscapes demonstrates the potential for this approach.
As part of the My School, My Planet programme, outdoor learning trainers helped children to identify trees, examine animal habitats and seek out further opportunities to engage with their local environment.
The Centre for Education and Youth’s recent evaluation of the programme suggested that the strong curricular links that were embedded in the programme were a welcome supplement to in-class teaching, helping pupils to learn more about their local environment and to explore the nature on their doorstep.
As well as helping to improve their environmental knowledge, there is some emerging evidence connecting outdoor learning activities to outcomes such as self-confidence, which could help children in other areas of school life.
External specialists in outdoor learning can also provide invaluable additional learning hours, giving stretched teachers further time to focus their expertise on their craft: excellent teaching.
Getting children active
Outdoor learning can also help children to get active and enjoy the benefits of physical activity. Being active is associated with reduced anxiety and increased self-esteem, with physical activity playing a key role in children’s wellbeing.
Sadly, we know that the pandemic has disrupted many of these opportunities. Once again, there are clear inequalities between different socioeconomic backgrounds. In particular, Sport England have noted a fall in children’s reported confidence and competence in sport and physical activity.
Outdoor learning programmes help to address this inactivity. For instance, The Centre for Education and Youth’s (CfEY) evaluation of My School, My Planet showed that many pupils increased their physical activity after the programme.
As one school leader put it when commenting on their pupils’ experience “the fresh air, experience of being out, the moving around” had been great for their pupils, who could not believe “how good that felt, just being outside”.
Summer schools and transition to secondary
The government’s recent ‘education recovery package’ is intended to compensate for the educational disruption caused by the pandemic. It includes a renewed commitment to summer schools and although these funds are targeted towards secondary schools, incoming Year 7 pupils may also be a suitable target.
We know that the transition from primary to secondary school can be challenging and, with plans for face-to-face taster days and induction events up in the air, summer schools could help primary school leavers to meet some new friends and get to grips with the demands and routines of secondary school.
Here, it will be important to reach out to parents and carers, to encourage attendance and ensure that summer schools benefit pupils that have been most disrupted by the pandemic.
Schools will be keen to ensure summer schools offer the right mix of academic learning and socialisation. Outdoor learning might be one way of doing this.
Over the Autumn term, school leaders told us that one of the most rewarding things about watching pupils participate in MSMP was seeing them build new friendships while giving them additional learning opportunities.
Drawing on teachers’ professional expertise and insights from cognitive science, LtL have shown how schools can give new meaning to the time children spend outside.
Engaging with the natural world
Nature is for everyone and accessibility should sit at the heart of any outdoor learning practice. Income should not be a barrier to outdoor learning, and one of the Learning Through Landscapes’ proudest achievements with My School My Planet was the fact that over a third of participants were eligible for Free School Meals.
Just as all children have an entitlement to powerful knowledge, LtL believes that everyone, regardless of background, should be able to engage with the natural world.
Great outdoor learning builds on explicit instruction from teachers and provides opportunities for children to encounter nature at the local level. Having acquired knowledge in class, outdoor learning could see pupils identify trees on a local street or consider why certain plants might flourish in particular parts of the playground.
Equipping children with knowledge about their local environment empowers them to learn more about the natural world on a wider scale. For example, CfEY’s evaluation showed that sourcing natural materials, building dens and maintaining plants gave many children a sense of responsibility towards their school site and local community.
This may, in turn, motivate them to consider national and international environmental concerns, such as climate change.
Many children feel shut out from decisions affecting their futures but outdoor learning allows them to apply their knowledge to make positive changes to their lives and environment.
Together with all the other benefits of outdoor learning – from boosted academic achievement to improved mental wellbeing – it’s never been more important to seek opportunities to integrate outdoor learning into primary education.
Advice on outdoor learning
- Give children the opportunity to explore their local environment, for example by identifying trees in the playground and examining animal habitats
- Link your outdoor learning with the curriculum, letting it complement your indoor learning
- Build physical activity into your outdoor learning to allow children to reap the benefits
- Explore the opportunities offered by government funding for summer schools to aid the primary to secondary transition
- Where possible, use specialist staff like outdoor learning trainers, who can help free-up teachers’ time
- Engage with parents and guardians to get feedback on ‘catch up’ schooling and widen pupil participation
- Make sure your outdoor learning offer is accessible to all children regardless of their financial or domestic backgrounds
Heena Dave is Head of Programmes and Partnerships at Learning through Landscapes (LtL).