Credit: Adrian Clarke

Remove the classroom walls

For many schools, the 30 Days Wild challenge from the Wildlife Trusts is part of a growing interest in exploring outdoor leaning and the benefits it offers. Liz Carney from the Wildlife Trust explains how it works

Schools throughout the UK are signing up to go ‘wild’ this June. They’re taking their classes outdoors, and replacing the classroom, with open natural spaces, full of possibilities.

As part of 30 Days Wild, schools are pledging to connect with nature every day during the entire month. No matter how big or small the action, it all counts. And if it seems like a big ask, schools which sign up a receive a free resource pack, including support for outdoor lesson plans.

For many schools, the national nature challenge from The Wildlife Trusts is part of a growing interest in exploring outdoor leaning, and the well documented benefits it offers. 

As far back as 2008, Ofsted found that ‘when planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.’   

More recently the University of Essex reported that ‘environments rich in wildlife are also associated with improved wellbeing, through emotional, social and psychological benefits.’

Yet despite these benefits, we are losing our natural environment, and our connection to it. 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows have been destroyed, and the demand for housing has never been higher. Fewer than 10 per cent of children today play in natural spaces, and in 2015 the roaming range of children was just 300 yards.
Which is why schools like Mill Strand Integrated put nature at the heart of its teaching.

Using local environment

Located on the spectacular Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland primary and nursery students at Mill Strand Integrated are used to learning outdoors.

Deidre Doherty, the school’s science & eco co-ordinator says: “We use our local beach & environment as an outside classroom. We are so passionate about it, we have adopted the school end of West Strand beach and we work hard to look after and protect it. During June we use the beach and local environment each day for our Random Acts of Wildness; activities incorporating nature, and wildlife.

“Sometimes we explore marine life along the strandline and the rockpools, other days we take books outside and read, or lay and watch the clouds floating by.

“Today’s children engage less and less with nature, so it’s very important that as schools we put the natural world at the centre of our teaching and 30 Days Wild helps us to do this. It’s a different way of learning, but it works across the breadth of the curriculum, and engages students in their work.

Why teach data handling indoors, when you can collect your data outdoors, using your surroundings? It’s still maths, but these lessons capture children’s attention.”

Deirdre says this hands-on style of learning suits students of all abilities: “Everyone benefits, I’ve seen how learning in nature can have an impact on children of all abilities especially those with special educational needs. Remove the classroom walls, and the sky’s the limit.”

Urban spaces

Not every school has amazing wild spaces on its doorstep, but even in urban Sheffield, teaching outside the classroom has a network of energetic supporters.

The Sheffield Teach Wild Network, championed by Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust shares best practice, handy tips, resources and news through emails and termly meetings. There’s even an outdoor classroom in the local Greno Woods. Kieron Turney, who teaches biology at Handsworth Grange Community Sports College is a passionate ambassador. 

This year his nature club at Handsworth Grange will explore every nook and cranny of the school grounds during a June bioblitz to discover the plants and wildlife that live there. Students at this 11-16 comprehensive school, will make and present films, concentrating on a different organism each day to discover what makes them special, and how they fit into the environment. 

Kieron says: “It does feel like a challenge, learning outside for 30 days straight – but the pupils get so much more from the prolonged immersion in the outdoors and in the natural world than they do from a once-a-week nature club experience. And it’s amazing how many different topics you can tick off – something that makes it a handy tool for teachers, because you can teach a range of subjects using the outdoors as a classroom.”
 “Last year the pupils came up with ideas at a planning session in April – and I timetabled these into the teaching week. We hunted ladybird nymphs to learn about lifecycles, we read our books outside, we went on barefoot walks and did yoga under the trees. It wasn’t all wildlife-themed, learning outside was the most important thing.”

“Not all our pupils get opportunities to explore nature, so I want to provide this for them at school. Children who engage with wildlife and the outdoors become more centred, and grounded. Almost across the board, nature clubs that I’ve run make a profound difference to pupils’ progress, especially those at risk of not meeting their targets or who have additional needs. In one case, a pupil who had experienced problems with bullying and a lack of self-confidence ended up choosing a career as a vet as a result of the nature club. I got a lovely thank you note from her when she left school.”

A positive impact

The large-scale Natural Connections study found that both teachers and pupils highly rated learning outside in the natural environment. 97 per cent of schools said it had a positive impact on teaching practice, 72 per cent reported a positive impact on teacher health and wellbeing and 69 per cent a positive impact on job satisfaction. There were similarly favourable results for pupils; 95 per cent of schools reported there was a positive impact on enjoyment of lessons, 94 per cent on connection to nature, 92 per cent on both engagement with learning and health and wellbeing.

But the study also found a fundamental challenge; some staff lacked confidence to deliver outdoor learning and were uncertain about linking it to the curriculum. Creating the right support to enable learning in the natural environment is clearly important if it is to become as routine as teaching in a classroom.

Many local Wildlife Trusts offer schools knowledge and support to put learning outdoors on the timetable, whether it’s a guided visit to a local nature reserve, improving school grounds for wildlife or providing resources for educators. Some also offer training for teachers, from forest school courses, to CPD training, and whole school INSET days, where teachers are trained to recognise habitats within their school grounds and learn techniques to incorporate this into the curriculum.

Wildlife Trusts also run Forest School sessions, and not just in woodlands; environments, include small wild spaces close to urban centres, and even beaches. Building shelters, bushcraft skills, cooking over a campfire and learning about wildlife all fuels creativity and investigation. Children develop confidence and skills, take responsibility and find a freedom not on offer indoors.

There are a host of ways to bring the natural world into teaching, and a host of good reasons to do it.

As teacher Deidre Doherty says: “Remove the classroom walls, and the sky’s the limit.