Outdoor learning can improve a child’s attainment, health and well-being, as well as inspire them to become future green leaders. Yet according to the government, less than 10 per cent of school children have access to outdoor learning. Groundwork’s Stacey Aplin looks at what support is out there to help get schools teaching outside.
The potential for outdoor learning to support academic success is a view shared by many parents, teachers and academics. Recent research from psychologists at the University of Derby suggests pupils with a strong connection with nature tend to perform well in Key Stage 2 SATs, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers recently voted to urge the government to put gardening on the primary school curriculum, noting that doing so would be a good way to combat obesity.
The government are also looking at ways to boost outdoor learning and have announced plans for every schoolchild to visit a national park as part of measures to connect children and the environment, with environment minister Liz Truss remarking that ‘our children should be climbing trees, not walls’.
Hands on learning
Groundwork has championed this idea for 35 years and during that time the charity has worked with schools to make outdoor learning a reality for their pupils and has found that nothing brings a subject to life more than giving them the opportunity to experience the environment first hand.
Graham Duxbury, Groundwork’s chief executive, said: “The school environment is one of the most influential environments children experience. After all, they spend almost half their waking day at school, they will develop social interaction skills, make or break friendships, in short, grow as people.
“We have found that taking lessons outdoors is extremely valuable, particularly for pupils who find the formal environment of the classroom isn’t working for them. It’s a really good way for teachers to reconnect with switched off learners.”
One of the ways in which children are being introduced to outdoor learning in a school setting is through ‘forest schools’, an outdoor resource where children have regular access to an outdoor environment that provides an interactive, educational outdoor experience.
The forest school ethos promotes outdoor education that provides a stimulating experience and enables both learning and access to nature, which is a rarity for some young people, especially those who live in the inner-cities. Groundwork supported the development of a forest school based at Manchester Communication Academy in Harpurhey. The Moston Brook site, adjacent to the school, has helped to provide a consistent approach to outdoor education as well as helping pupils to develop confidence through hands-on learning in an outdoor setting.
To ensure that pupils were fully engaged with the project, three workshops were arranged with 20 pupils in years seven, eight and nine to allow them to experience what the forest school can offer them.
Julie Hyslop, Groundwork’s senior project officer, who oversaw the development, said: “It’s important to engage children from the get-go and the workshops were the perfect way for this to happen. The space has enabled the academy to encourage outdoor learning and allowed children to connect with nature.”
As well as the forest school, pupils were also involved with the academy’s on-site fruit orchard, and an ecologist from Greater Manchester Ecology Unit was involved with the workshops, giving the pupils involved professional, hands-on guidance and practical skills to maintain the trees. An outdoor classroom was also built on the Moston Brook site, allowing further opportunities for outdoor learning.
Julie says: “Both the forest school and orchard have provided the pupils with a space to learn new things that they wouldn’t learn in a classroom environment. By encouraging this, it’s more likely that pupils will pass on their positive feedback to their peers which will help ensure that children will utilise the space for years to come.”
The forest school development has helped to cement an arrangement across seven local primary and secondary schools in the area, all of which will now have access to the forest school, providing much needed outdoor resource.
Julie added: “I’ve seen first-hand the benefits that come from giving children regular access to greenspace, especially those who live in inner-cities, so this agreement will help to make sure this becomes a reality.”
The subject of sustainability
If we pushed the boundaries further there is space to allow a more prominent and more powerful approach to outdoor learning that not only teaches, but instils the importance of environmental sustainability into the minds of pupils.
In the Midlands, Summerbank Primary School in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent, became more sustainable with the introduction of a ‘Living Green Wall’, an innovative concept that’s designed to recycle used rainwater in order to grow plants.
Pundeep Kaur, Groundwork’s sustainable education co-ordinator, supported the school to install the green wall. By installing the wall, pupils have been able to see the installation of a wall that’s both visually appealing and gives them an outlet for learning outdoors.
Kaur commented: “We were able to teach pupils of different ages how to get involved with gardening which is good for their health and well-being.
“The children really enjoyed the practical learning element of the session and the message we were trying to get across. The importance of gardening and sustainable drainage systems, was digested by the pupils amazingly.
“The first-hand experience of growing in the session is a novel and memorable way of learning. The message goes beyond Groundwork and the children we work with them to become little eco warriors who educate their peers.”
Bags of possibilities
Times are, of course, very tough in ‘Austerity Britain’. Usual sources of public sector funding for these types of projects can be much harder to come by. Groundwork believe there is an opportunity for the private sector to step into the breach and points to Tesco’s ‘Bags of Help’ community grants scheme as an example of major corporate organisations supporting schools, community organisations and charities to create and improve green spaces in their communities.
The scheme, which is funded by the government’s 5p carrier bag charge and is administered by Groundwork, has so far provided £11.5m of grants to nearly 1,200 groups – just over 300 of which were school projects – including sensory gardens, bee-keeping, pond-dipping, forest schools and outdoor classrooms.
Winnersh Primary School in Wokingham is one of the schools that have received £12,000 of funding and intend to build a sensory garden for pupils in their outdoor space. This will include creating new pathways and raised beds to plant flowers and herbs and allow the school to utilise an overgrown pond area so that pupils have a safe and enriching outdoor environment to learn in.
Helen Powell, head of Winnersh Primary School, said: “There has been lots of excitement at the school since we heard the news that we have been awarded funding. The children have been busy planning what they would like to see in the sensory garden and we have already had some amazing ideas and sketches. This is a fantastic opportunity to involve the children in shaping and improving their environment.”
The new design of the garden will also be accessible to the children at the school with special educational needs, creating a learning environment that all children can enjoy.
Helen concluded: “By taking the children’s learning outside, we are able to create fun and memorable experiences which complement our classroom teaching.”