Expanding learning beyond four walls

School grounds can become an integral tool for outdoor learning and provide opportunities for young people to improve their physical and mental wellbeing. Groundwork’s Stacey Aplin considers what can be done to ensure that more pupils have the opportunity to get outdoors

In February this year, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) released the ‘25 Year Environment Strategy’, setting out the government’s vision for tackling the environmental issues facing the country.

The document puts forward the government’s plans to cement the relationship between the environment and its valuable role in improving the health, wellbeing of communities across the UK. Part of this strategy is targeted specifically at young people, and the benefits of ‘encouraging children to be close to nature, in and out of school’ through a ‘Nature Friendly Schools’ programme and various outreach activities with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas.

Making the case for change

Since Groundwork was founded nearly four decades ago, the important focus on the link between the outdoors and our wellbeing, both physical and mental, is paramount to what we do and what we
stand for as a charity.

It’s very apparent that there is an appetite for outdoor learning in schools across the UK. The latest ‘Outdoor Classroom Day’ findings, released by Project Dirt, found that 99 per cent of UK teachers surveyed believe that outdoor playtime throughout the school day is critical for children to reach their full potential.

“Spending time outdoors being active, not only improves physical health, but also boosts children’s mood; social skills; emotional intelligence and self-esteem and makes them more imaginative and creative individuals,” says Michelle Brodie, Groundwork’s community project coordinator.

“Often in urban areas, due to a lack of good quality green spaces, there are far fewer opportunities when compared to previous generations for young people to play freely. Giving children and young people access to the natural environment and information about how to use it more safely and productively can help to fill this gap.

“Even a very small outdoor area can provide a valuable learning space to the school community. With a little bit of hard work and minimal funding it can be transformed into a valuable resource,” Michelle concluded.

Making the most of space

An integral part of making school grounds both accessible and functional is to both assess the needs of the school and the space on offer to see how plans can be accommodated. “It doesn’t have to be expensive – you can create multifunctional spaces that work for all manner of activities,” says Nicola Murphy, Groundwork’s landscape architect.

“It’s about creating a space that works for the whole school. Often we go into schools that have a ‘green desert’ of space which is good
to allow children to run around, but they are not the most stimulating or inspiring of spaces.

“By breaking up the outdoor areas you can create flexible spaces. This can include spaces for quiet play, or a space to kick a ball around. By consulting with the whole school body, including teachers, pupils and all faculty staff such as dinner supervisors, you then ensure that you are catering to different needs.”

Activities that take place outdoors can complement or even inspire classroom learning, giving teachers more options for creative learning.

“Using “real life” situations can make learning more meaningful for students as well as sparking their imagination,” says Michelle. “For example, following a lesson outdoors identifying the different species of trees that are present in their outdoor area, students could log the information on a tally chart and then a graph.

“By applying the skills they have acquired in the classroom to a real life situation students are much more likely to fully comprehend the topics they are learning and become more engaged in their
own education,” she concluded.

Making the most of community

In order to maximise the options to ensuring outdoor learning is a staple for schools, it’s important to expand our search further than the classroom walls and, in some cases, beyond school grounds.

In Salford, Groundwork has run innovative programme, ‘Mindsteps’ with young people aged 13-18. The programme uses a variety of coaching, mentoring and Forest School activities to help the mental health and wellbeing of the young people enrolled on the programme, helping to reduce stress and anxiety.

Liz Edwards, senior training officer and Forest School practitioner at Groundwork has seen first-hand the benefits that the programme brings to pupils.“Young people today face increasing levels of stress and anxiety as a result of exams, media pressures, problems at home and meeting the standards expected of them by society. This often presents in
the first instance as under-performance and poor attendance at school,” says Liz.

“The Forest School element added a new dimension to the Mindsteps programme. Sessions were held either at Groundwork‘s Trafford Ecology Park base, or at a suitable outdoor learning venue and provided a resource for schools that didn’t have the outdoor provision to offer outdoor learning.

“It appealed to those young people who wanted to get out of the classroom. The outside space acted as a great motivator and catalysts to self-exploration and problem solving,” Liz concludes.

Making the most of funding

As the corset continues to tighten on local government budgets, schools often have to identify additional pots of funding to make outdoor learning a regular option for pupils. Groundwork administers various grant
programmes that provide schools and nurseries funding to create and facilitate outdoor learning such as Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme. Since the scheme opened in 2015, it has funded 3,600 schools to the tune of £15.5million.

“Schools also need to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to awareness of different funding streams, such as grant schemes or local council pots of money, says Michelle. “And there is also the option of asking local businesses for sponsorship or asking the school PTA to help raise funds.”

“Funding like this has provided valuable cash to schools to help make improvements to their outdoor spaces by making them more inviting and safer for pupils to play on, as well as the opportunity to create school allotments, sensory gardens and Forest School opportunities.”

“By being alert to and taking advantage of the funding that’s available, schools can bring a new wave of innovative projects that aid learning.”

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