Ensuring outdoor learning is key for everyone

Outdoor learning is an active, experiential approach to learning, open to all, that involves being outdoors as a central part of the experience. It seeks to use the outdoor environment as a vehicle for transforming the experience into knowledge, skills, attitudes and actions.  
Where are we talking about? Within a traditional school setting, it can be helpful to differentiate where outdoor learning happens by how complicated it is to facilitate. The easiest would be the grounds, then moving outside the school gate but still within walking distance. Next would come day-visits that required additional transport and finally multi-day residentials or expeditions. The key to a successful outdoor learning strategy is to have all the experiences well planned and part of a progression, both throughout the year and throughout the school.  
Taking learning outdoors increases the opportunities for students to engage with the environment through all their senses. These experiences in turn provide a rich source of connection to emotions and memories, all of which can be drawn on later. High quality outdoor learning, no matter where it takes place or who the participants are, provides opportunities to develop confidence and character as well as social and emotional awareness. Skills for life can be developed and the stimulating environment provided by being outside can increase motivation and an appetite for learning.  

Barriers to taking learning outdoors come in many forms. The perceived threat of litigation (what if it all goes wrong?), a belief that you need expensive equipment, lack of knowledge and personal experience and parental or teacher opposition can all have a negative effect. However, if these hurdles can be overcome, through training and collective drive, then there really is a whole world out there waiting to be discovered, and it is a world that those students with special educational needs can access as well as those in the mainstream.

Outdoor Learning in School
Outdoor learning approaches in school can genuinely be made open to all.  Hard barriers – steps, ramps and clothing, for example – can be overcome with commitment and a shared understanding of the overall vision for outdoor learning in the school. Adequate resources, training for staff and an achievable action plan will also help to facilitate progress, but it is the softer barriers to participation that are often the harder ones to deal with. Low expectations from teachers, sometimes based around their own fears and preconceptions, can be the biggest barrier. The easiest strategy thus becomes one of avoidance as it is perceived to be just too difficult to make the adjustments necessary for inclusion.  

For many people working in the field of outdoor learning there is a strong underpinning belief in social justice. Inclusion and access for all means that young people have a chance to develop personal and social skills that they may not be able to access elsewhere. The self-awareness that develops through outdoor learning can lead to a young person’s increased belief in their ability to be in control of their own lives, and ultimately to the capacity to effect change – realising their full potential and increasing their life chances.
Inclusion is about giving everyone the same opportunities. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) means that it is unlawful to treat disabled pupils or students less favourably. Providers (including schools) have to make reasonable adjustments to enable those with additional needs and disabilities to participate. What does this mean in reality? In schools, wheelchair accessibility, teaching support and extra resources are some of the ways that needs can be catered for. Outside the classroom, the challenges can seem more difficult, but accessible pathways in the grounds provide a way to enable wheelchairs to move around and areas can be set up that are accessible to all. Resources – such as the Outdoor Education Advisor’s Panel (OEAP) ‘Outdoor Learning’ and’ Environmental Learning’ Cards – provide clear lesson plans for a wide range of inclusive activities covering all aspects of the curriculum.  

The requirement to promote disability equality means that school staff should plan to make reasonable adjustments as a matter of course. The same planning that goes into a classroom lesson can also be applied outside, and involving the young people themselves in any planning for outdoor learning experiences is an excellent way to generate ownership and new ideas.
Some of the more straightforward adjustments for SEN do not actually involve complicated or expensive resources, but rather are focussed on a modified approach, eg allowing extra time for the activities to be completed, modifying communication systems (eg if working with deaf children in an open space), and thinking about whether extra staff might be needed to help move children to enable them to access otherwise inaccessible activities.
Keeping children warm, as many children with mobility issues can get cold very quickly, means having facilities to rewarm and hot drinks – small modifications that can have a big impact on all learners, whatever their needs. Risk assessing on the day (‘dynamic’) as well as the activity, site/activity specific risk assessment procedure allows for adjustments to be made that may be influenced by the environment, weather or unforeseen circumstances. Making the effort leads to the exciting realisation that developing the ‘outdoor classroom’ can genuinely provide an exciting and stimulating open-access approach to learning. One of our students said: “We have learned to do things for ourselves more and are more confident.”

Visits to residential centres
Residentials can be powerful and positive learning experiences. As well as being a great leveller, they provide the time and space for an intense experience that allows a focus on a wide range of key skills. Providing opportunities to experience success through challenging activities leads to memorable experiences that in turn lead to better relationships between staff and students alike. The knock on effect from a residential can be felt afterwards in increased engagement and, potentially, raised attainment. Residential outdoor centres provide a secure and safe environment for those with special needs.
As with any school visit, the key to a successful trip is good planning, with effective communication between the course leader and the Centre staff plenty of time in advance of the course. A pre- visit is usually essential, especially if the venue is new to the group. It might also be beneficial for the young people to visit the centre beforehand, whether as part of a day trip to sample some activities or just to familiarise themselves with the venue. Understanding routines, preparing for a different menu and seeing the sleeping and bathroom arrangements can have a big impact on a young person’s willingness to leave the security of their home surroundings for a period away from home.

Allowing for inclusion
Careful liaison between school and centre staff is essential to ensure that the needs of the group can be fully met. Staff at AHOEC Centres are able to cope with a wide range of special needs and many centres now have purpose built accommodation units to cater for those with severe disabilities.

Activities for many people can be adapted with a minimum of specialised equipment, but for those groups with a high proportion of physical disabilities, specialised centres exist that are equipped with a wide range of accessible equipment and facilities; the Adventure for All network includes members from across the UK and is a good place to start your search.
Programme design that allows for inclusion ideally should involve the rest of the participants, as managing the expectations of more able students in a mixed ability group is often equally important. Pre-course sessions with the group can help to establish shared goals, and with a bit of forethought it is possible to plan and deliver sessions based around a highly challenging shared goal that has developmental outcomes for all involved. Enabling a wheel chair user to participate in a ghyll scramble or abseil, for example, involves a huge amount of teamwork, and the learning and growth that this leads to for the rest of the group should not be underestimated.
We all know how powerful outdoor learning experiences can be. For many people the most memorable experiences of their school career are ones that happened outside the classroom. For those who have little or no expectation of being able to participate in these activities, the experiences are potentially even more powerful as their perception of what they are able to do changes. The impossible becomes possible.

Gold Standard
The AHOEC promotes its own Gold Standard quality mark. At any Centre displaying the Gold Standard logo you can be assured of a safe and quality outdoor experience. All Gold Standard centres are also accredited to both the LOtC Quality Badge and Adventuremark. This gives further reassurance of the quality and safety of your chosen provider.

David Harvey is the Head of Residentials at the Brathay Trust. He is also the current National Chair of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres (AHOEC).

Further information