During the COVID-19 lockdown, I was continuously grateful for where I live. Not because I live in some mansion with an indoor cinema, games room or library.
Not because my property has fast broadband connectivity, energy efficient lighting or the very latest in ergonomic furniture but because I have a simple garden. An outdoor space I can call my own and during lockdown it’s where my family spent the vast majority of their time.
Outdoor space is important you see, even more so of course in times when our movement is restricted. I felt for those families without access to outside space during lockdown but also linked that thinking to children in schools without appropriate outdoor learning environments.
The need for children to develop naturally as part of nature and be considered ‘connected’ to their environment in a holistic way is not new but can be traced back to Rousseau (1770), who said ‘put children in natural surroundings and let them develop…the mind should be left undisturbed till its faculties have developed. Nature wants children to be children before they are men.’
Pestalozzi (1774) advocated that we learn from nature ‘it is nature that teaches….just be silent and listen.’ Froebel (early 20th century) did not want us to just observe plants and animals but to follow everything through to the source and see how everything connects.
At the school where I am Headteacher, The Prince of Wales School in Dorchester, Dorset, we are fortunate to be blessed with outdoor space. Having lots of outdoor space is only as useful though as you make it and we work hard as a school to ensure our provision has the most impact on learning for our whole-school community.
Indeed, as a philosophy, we see our outdoor learning spaces as just as important as the internal learning spaces which we too have spent time developing in recent years. The two must sit hand in hand to sustain learning and deliver impact.
Going back to Froebel, he spent many of his formative years in the garden. He saw that the whole curriculum could be taught in the garden but, also, that nature provided the strongest evidence possible for the ‘unity of all things’. Even the word ‘kindergarten’ combines the child with the garden.
He believed that we are all part of nature itself and one of his first recollections was when one of his grammar school masters made him realise that the tree, though complete in itself, is part of a larger whole. It takes from the soil and the air and gives back to both. One of his observations on children was ‘...the contemplation of a stone or plant often led to profound outbursts upon the universe’.
The story of The Prince of Wales School goes back to the early 1990s. At that time there was a need for more first school places in Dorchester (for children aged from four to nine), so it was decided to build a completely new school on a site next door to a small special school on Maiden Castle Road, a mile away from the Iron Age Hillfort.
The special school was for pupils with physical disabilities, and it was so small that it was struggling to survive. It’s Chair of Governors, felt that the children were not getting their entitlement to a full curriculum, and closure seemed inevitable. But in a moment of vision the decision was taken to integrate all the pupils from the special school into the new school.
Twenty-five years later, we have a thriving, fully inclusive and community-focused school with an integrated unit for children with physical disabilities. Our purpose-built school has a particularly impressive design and is spacious and practical.
It is set in its own extensive grounds which currently include play fields, playground, environmental studies area, orchard and outdoor teaching areas. There are hedgerows, imaginative play facilities and a reconstruction of an Iron Age Settlement that is developed each year by the oldest children.
As Headteacher, it’s been important for me to break down barriers and lead on maintaining and growing the use of our outdoor provision. A Guardian article published in March 2016, revealed the shocking truth that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates.
Young children today are growing up in a world that is changing more rapidly than in any other time in history – technologically, environmentally, socially, politically and culturally.
My challenge is to inspire them to care, preserve and develop this world in the future – to connect them with nature and provide a relevance that goes way beyond any artificial experience generated by technology.
Gary Spracklen is Headteacher at The Prince of Wales School: Dorchester.