One of the key lessons from the last two years is that time outdoors is incredibly important.
It improves our mental health and wellbeing, offers opportunities to get more active, and connects us to nature.
It’s especially important for children and young people. But what part can it play in their education?
The use of school grounds for curriculum-linked learning isn’t anything new; Learning through Landscapes has been supporting teachers from across the UK to throw open their classroom doors and take learning outside for over 30 years.
But with around 84% of the UK’s population now living in urban areas – many of which have no accessible green space nearby – the school is an even more valuable tool for learning in and from nature.
Exploring the possibilities
In November last year, the Department of Education announced plans to design a ‘new model science curriculum’ with climate education at its heart, to be put in place across England by 2023.
Children and young people will be expected to investigate their school grounds and enrich their biodiversity, and the school estate is likely to play a key role in education across all key stages and subjects.
With this in mind, now is the perfect time to start exploring everything your school grounds have to offer.
But what if your school has a small, concrete playground with no equipment and no greenery? It’s a concern I hear frequently from the teachers we work with, and it’s completely understandable.
There’s a misconception that outdoor learning has to take place in sprawling forests or extensive grounds, but it’s really not the case.
Even the smallest, most urban schools can have an outstanding outdoor learning provision, because everything in the school grounds can, and should be used towards making an outdoor classroom – from using objects around the site to explore angles in maths, to hanging planters made from recycled water bottles to your walls.
Communication is just one of the skills that can be developed through outdoor learning, as teachers at Yorkmead primary discovered.
Located in a busy residential area on the outskirts of Birmingham, Yorkmead teaches over 450 pupils – over a third of whom are eligible for Pupil Premium.
But last year, even though its school grounds are mostly covered in concrete and paving, English lead Andrew Neale-Crane decided he wanted more learning to take place outdoors.
Following pandemic lockdown restrictions, Andrew had seen first-hand that some of the nursery and reception children had developed issues with their wellbeing, were low in confidence, and showing signs of communication and separation issues.
He hoped that more time outdoors would help them.
Yorkmead primary began investing in equipment, storage and furniture for their outdoor space and started developing their curriculum to include outdoor learning.
However, when Andrew noticed not all the school’s early years staff felt confident in using the school grounds for outdoor learning and play, he decided to apply for one of Learning through Landscapes’ Local School Nature Grants.
Funded by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, our Local School Nature Grants scheme has helped over 2,400 schools across England, Scotland and Wales since 2017, giving them access to £500 of outdoor learning equipment as well as two hours of staff training with one of our experts.
In October last year, one of our training and development officers visited Yorkmead Primary to help build the team’s confidence in delivering lessons outdoors, to demonstrate best practice, and to show staff how outdoor learning could link to their existing curriculum.
“Our trainer Cindy gave us some great ideas, activities and tips to help with children’s learning in the environment,” Andrew told us afterwards.
“The training actually inspired us to plan a whole week of environmental art activities, based around the work of Andy Goldsworthy, during which nursery and reception children had constant access to the outdoor area.”
As well as the training, Yorkmead used the grant to get new outdoor planters, which the team has since used to transform a section of their outdoor space into an allotment area: a new resource for teaching children about the science of the natural world.
“We’ve already seen a very positive impact on our reception children,” Andrew said.
“They’ve been engaging well with the outdoors across all areas of the curriculum, and we have noticed significant progress in their skills – particularly when it comes to communication and language, and their personal, social and emotional development.
“One child, who had suffered with serious separation issues, now loves coming to school and is engaging really positively with his peers and his learning.
“Our experience with Learning through Landscapes has been truly rewarding, and we hope that the children will continue to grow in confidence and overcome their communication issues through learning outdoors.”
Yorkmead primary has made a huge amount of progress in a very short time, but your school may benefit from introducing outdoor learning activities into its curriculum on a more gradual basis.
Apply for funding
Learning through Landscapes’ Local School Nature Grants scheme will re-open for applications at the end of March 2022, with £500 of outdoor learning equipment and free training on offer for 900 schools and early year settings across England, Scotland and Wales.
You can find more details on our website (ltl.org.uk), where you’ll also find over 150 free resources our outdoor learning in early years and primary. .
Big Space Fractions
Here is one example of how to create a learning space:
Gather together chalk, string, a camera, some sheets or clothing, and split the class into teams of five or six children.
Cut a measure of 1.5m of string for each team, tie a piece of chalk to the end, then ask each team to draw a three metre-diameter circle on the ground.
Once the circles are accurately drawn, challenge the teams to create different fractions by laying the sheets or clothing over parts of the circle.
What fraction of the circle is left uncovered? Start simply, then build to more challenging fractions and explore equivalent percentages and decimals to embed the concept.
Outdoor learning doesn’t need to be grand: it can and should be adapted for any space, and even the smallest and simplest activities can have a big impact on the learning experiences of children at every stage of education.
So, I urge you - get outside, get inspired, and make the most of your school grounds for all its rich and diverse learning opportunities.
Carley Sefton is CEO of Learning through Landscapes