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How to make outdoor learning work in primary school

July 26, 2021, 9:59 GMT+1
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  • Bethany Eadie explains how to make the best use of whatever outdoor space you have and take the classroom outdoors safely...
How to make outdoor learning work in primary school

Schools weren’t built for social distancing, so it makes sense to take as much learning as you can outdoors, where it’s easier to stay apart and safer for everyone.

Research has found that spending time outdoors has a range of benefits for pupils, and some local authorities are exploring how outdoor learning could offer a template for socially-distanced schooling.

Of course, not every school has huge grounds, or woodlands on its doorstep, but you can use even small outside spaces to provide meaningful learning experiences.

Assess your available outdoor space

You might have a playground or sports field, but also consider whether there are any other outdoor spaces you can re-purpose. Get creative - for example could you close your car park to cars or use gardening areas? You can use cones or chalk lines to divide up larger spaces so that more than one class group, or ‘bubble’, can be outs

de at the same time. Make sure you complete a risk assessment for any areas you’re planning to use. Remember that children and staff need to be able to access toilets and hand-washing facilities from the outside area. If needed, create a hand-washing station outside with a small table, a water butt filled with warm water, a washing-up bowl, soap, paper towels and a bin to collect them.

Outdoor space is an extension of the classroom

Ideally, every bubble would have a dedicated outdoor area to use whenever they want to take their learning outside - but this just won’t be possible for all schools. Having a timetable that maximises the amount of time each bubble is outside is the next best thing.

Look at how many class groups you expect to have in school and how many children you can safely have in each outdoor space. Once you have this information, create an indoor/outdoor timetable - remember to include journey times between outside areas and classrooms, to minimise any crossover time outside or in corridors.

Don’t worry that you might be limiting pupils’ learning by timetabling them outdoors - this will be more than just “playtime” if you make it structured and focused. But it can also be more open-ended and child-led than classroom learning - it may not be exactly the same as indoor learning.

For inspiration and ideas, there are lots of organisations that have a wide selection of free outdoor learning activities and resources for a range of different age groups and outdoor settings, such as Woodcraft Folk, Forest School Association, Learning Through Landscapes and Outdoor Classroom Day. Outdoor learning works in almost all weathers, so don’t let this put you off, either.

Adapt outdoor spaces for learning

Previously, your outdoor spaces might have been primarily for playing or break times, but now you need to make sure they’re suitable for learning too. Consider what you can do to make these spaces fit for purpose.

  • Take inspiration from your EYFS team: you’re looking to replicate how they deliver continuous provision in their outdoor area, in a way that’s age-appropriate for all your pupils. They’re the experts on this, so talk to them first about how they do this and ask for their help.
  • Create different ‘areas’: do this just as you would in the classroom, eg set up a quiet corner area for reading/independent work, choose an appropriate space for a whole group to sit together and listen to the teacher, and use open areas for group work or play
  • Create shade/shelter: this is key to keeping your outdoor area working in all weather conditions. Hang a play parachute or tarpaulin between walls or railings to create shade from the sun and shelter from gentle rain showers, so children can stay outside for longer. Make sure your staff and the children have the right gear (e.g. a warm coat or sun hat/sun cream).
  • Create displays to recreate the classroom environment: use waterproof duct tape to put up laminated displays, similar to displays you might have in the classroom (eg number lines, times tables, hundred square, key words or spellings) to create a learning environment outdoors.
  • Make sure pupils have something to sit on and write on: children can sit on grass or wood - but if the ground is hard, take classroom cushions outside, use jumpers or coats, or invest in some easy-to-clean outdoor waterproof cushions. Alternatively, bring classroom chairs outdoors if it’s safe to do so, but make sure you include this in your risk assessment first. Buy each class group a set of clipboards if you can (they’ll get plenty of use and can be cleaned regularly), or use mini-whiteboards or hardback books with a bulldog clip on the top to attach a piece of paper.
  • Bring the natural world into your outdoor area as much as possible. Nature provides endless opportunities for learning, and you can seek out nature even in a concrete playground. If you can, create spaces to plant seeds and grow plants (in pots or raised beds), observe wildlife (put up bird feeders or bird boxes), measure the weather and changing seasons (make weather-vanes, sundials or wind catchers).

Tell parents about outdoor learning

As you would for anything new you’re doing in school, let parents know that children will be learning more outdoors. You could mention it in a letter or email to parents, or on your school website.

If you have a set timetable, let parents know how often and which days children will be learning outdoors. You should also explain to parents what you’d like them to provide.

This might include weatherproof clothing (ie a waterproof coat, wellies, old clothes that they don’t mind getting wet or dirty), warm weather protection (ie sun hat, sun cream, water bottle) and a spare change of clothes to keep at school.

Advice for high-quality outdoor lessons

Establish the ground rules early on This could include rules like:

  • “No picking, no licking” if children are unfamiliar with natural environments.
  • Exactly where they can and can’t go.
  • What to do if they get too hot, cold or hurt themselves.
  • General expectations for outdoor areas (children without gardens at home may have forgotten).

Take a more open-ended approach to lesson plans and timings

  • Have learning objectives for the week rather than the lesson and see when you achieve them (it might be on Wednesday rather than by Friday).
  • Let children explore and complete activities at their own pace, allowing for unexpected conversations and detours. However, mark each session with:

    A beginning: establish or remind children of ground rules and explain any specific activities.

    A middle: have a water/snack break (all sitting in a circle, in shade/under shelter).

    An end: a calming activity (like listening to a story) to prepare pupils for going back indoors.

Bethany Eadie is a senior content producer at The Key. This article is an extract from ‘School reopening: providing high-quality outdoor learning’ - which they worked on with Kate Brown and Roger Chapman, who are experienced Forest School and Woodcraft Folk practitioners.