Responding to the impact Covid-19 has had on learning and meeting guidelines around physical distancing is requiring schools to be innovative in how they deliver the curriculum and support pupil health and wellbeing, writes Justine Lee from the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom
In recognition of the consequence of a sustained period of absence from school on the mental health of pupils, both the Welsh and Scottish governments and have put outdoor learning at the heart of their guidance to schools on reopening more widely. The Department for Education in England has also recommended that schools utilise outdoor spaces in their planning.
The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is campaigning for more schools to re-evaluate how and where they teach.
Dr Anne Hunt, chief executive at the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, said: “Teaching doesn’t have to take place in school buildings. Moving outside or utilising other spaces within the local community means teachers will be able to deliver the curriculum safely and effectively whilst ensuring they meet government guidelines on physical distancing.
“Children and young people are dealing with high levels of disruption, uncertainty and a lack of physical connection with their friends and with the natural world and the inequalities are widening. Learning outside the classroom offers a well-evidenced intervention – with almost universal availability and at very low cost – that can make such a big difference to so many children and young people.”
Space to learn
Thanks to a long tradition of using outdoor learning, Kendall Primary School in Essex has been able to welcome over 100 children back to school since the beginning of June.
Lewis Barrett-Rodger, deputy head teacher, said: “When planning to re-open, we knew that our well-established outdoor learning would be essential in maintaining social distancing and keeping our staff and pupils safe whilst at school. Being outside gives our children more space to learn and helps them to keep apart from each other where necessary. We also know from the science that being outside reduces the risk of transmission.
“In the midst of such a traumatic event for many people, the children’s wellbeing has been at the forefront of lessons. Children have been encouraged to talk about their experiences of lockdown and express their hopes and fears for the future. Being in the outdoors is a great way to improve children’s mood and develop their positive mental wellbeing. Not only does it give the children space to run around and let off steam, the outdoors also provides the perfect soundtrack and atmosphere for relaxation and meditation. Sit Spots have been used with children across the school this week. In lessons, children are invited to find a quiet spot in the outdoors and sit. This gives them time for contemplation and a moment to reflect.”
However, many schools don’t have ready access to outdoor space. In recognition of this, Edinburgh City Council has offered all schools in the city its green spaces for use as ‘outdoor classrooms’. Parks, woodlands and natural heritage sites can all now be used to help schools increase pupil capacity when they reopen in August. The Council hopes that this extra space will enable schools to increase the amount of face-to-face learning time they can offer their pupils.
In London, The Garden Classroom is supporting a school in Hackney to overcome the challenges it faces as a result of restrictions due to Covid19. After discussions with a church adjacent to the school, pupils now have access to a large secure garden area in the church’s grounds where they can take part in curriculum-linked games and nature-connection activities.
The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is encouraging schools to think creatively about how and where learning takes place and has brought together the leading bodies and associations involved in learning outside the classroom and who are ready and able to support schools to develop their curriculum by taking their lessons beyond the classroom.
Dr Hunt said: “Educational visit providers have been hit exceptionally hard by the Covid19 restrictions, and many are facing an uncertain future. These venues, providers, attractions and destinations provide an invaluable service to schools, helping teachers to extend classroom-based learning and giving pupils the opportunity to apply their learning in real world settings.
“We have an opportunity to think more creatively about other suitable learning spaces. Museums, galleries, sacred places and so on are all standing empty. As the Garden Classroom has shown, there are opportunities for teachers to talk to partners and providers about utilising these local spaces to accommodate their pupils in ways that respect government guidance on social distancing.
The consortium, which represents over 500 organisations, believes that helping schools to deliver programmes of regular, progressive lessons outside the classroom will help schools deliver their curriculum safely and effectively, deliver benefits to pupil health and wellbeing – at home and at school – build better home/school learning partnerships by enabling teachers to develop consistent learning experiences for all their pupils whether at home or school, and mitigate against widening inequalities resulting from school closures.
Heart of England Forest is working with its local schools in Warwickshire to help pupils re-establish relationships, learn to play together in new ways and reclaim a sense of freedom after the limitations of lockdown and ongoing limitations of social distancing.
To help schools and ensure the programme was successful, Heart of England Forest worked closely with its schools and deliver a whole day of activities on its site for each school. This meant that parents could drop and collect children directly at the forest reducing the need for alternative transport, maintaining pre-existing ‘bubbles’ for learning and play activities and mirroring each school’s risk assessment so staff enforce the school’s rules rather than introducing a different set of rules which might be confusing and unsettling for the children.
Elaine Skates from the Heart of England Forest’s learning team, said: “Schools have been able to use our site and programme to provide positive transition experiences, particularly for year 6 pupils who may have missed out on celebration school trips. And our focused and hands-on curriculum learning have also enabled pupils to ‘catch-up’ with lost curriculum time.”
The hiatus brought on by Covid19 provides schools with the chance to use this period to build confidence and embed a culture of learning outside the classroom. By doing this, schools will build a strong foundation to support a programme of progressive learning beyond the classroom going forward, which will help realise the immense benefits for pupils, schools and providers of services to schools too.
Dr Hunt continued: “Covid19 has impacted on all our lives and will continue to do so for many months to come. It has however presented the opportunity for society to re-look at the way teaching is delivered and to be innovative in how it does this. We are hopeful that a better approach to learning will emerge, with greater recognition of the importance of learning in different places and spaces, and the value this brings for children, young people, teachers, schools and the wider community.”