The outdoor learning approach to health and well-being

Research shows that obese children and adolescents are more likely to become obese adults and also develop various diseases such as type 2 diabetes, and a worrying 30 per cent of children in England are now classed as overweight or obese. Children need opportunities to be outside and the outdoors is where many children like to be the most. By allowing children the freedom to be outside, we reinforce their emotional well-being, which in turn enables them to embrace the natural world independently. 

Research shows many positive outcomes associated with a higher level of health and well-being, including improved creative thinking, productivity, good interpersonal relationships and resilience in the face of adversity, as well as good physical health and life expectancy.

The English Outdoor Council recognises the importance of having physical activity, including that associated with outdoor recreation and learning, embedded across all aspects of government strategy. Exercise – and outdoor activity – needs to be seen as fun and not a punishment for being inactive or unhealthy. Being active develops stronger bones, muscles and joints, helps to develop motor skills and the cardiovascular system and ultimately helps to maintain a healthy weight. Focussing on well-being ultimately leads to better all round health. Making activity a normal part of the day by taking what is traditionally done inside a classroom outside is one effective way of achieving this goal.  

Promoting health
Outdoor learning is best described as an active, experiential approach to teaching and 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. Outdoor learning helps to develop knowledge of oneself, others, the environment and the curriculum; encourages empathy, tolerance, understanding, cooperation and collaboration; and fosters positive attitudes towards health, risk, the environment and community.  
Not surprisingly, outdoor learning and adventure programmes are seen by many as having the potential to promote the health and well-being of young people.

So how can this happen?
‘Outdoor learning’ is an approach to developing the whole person that is most commonly seen in the Early Years. Children begin their school careers with E
 plenty of outdoor play and activity but the amount of time spent outdoors rapidly dwindles until virtually all classroom time can be spent indoors – getting outside becomes limited to specific trips and visits and some PE lessons. 

Teachers often feel pressured to deliver a busy curriculum in a certain way and the thought of using the outdoors to achieve their targets can be frightening. Introducing the outdoors into an already busy school curriculum can seem like an impossible challenge, but with the right planning and a whole school approach significant progress can be made that makes a real difference, not only to the health and well-being of the school population, but also to their attainment.  

Developing the school environment
Thinking about the school itself, the development of garden areas has been shown to be enormously beneficial. As well as providing a good reason to be outside, there are many teaching opportunities associated with the gardening year. Connect the garden to an overall grounds development plan and there is scope to involve the children in real activities that interest them in school and will potentially interest them back home as well. The John Muir Award provides an accessible accreditation framework for schools to develop wild areas that can be right on your doorstep.

Outdoor learning provides opportunities to make learning physical. How about writing a senses poem based upon a simple orienteering-map based journey around the school grounds? Or a look at using right angle triangles to measure the height of trees? Following directions outside in French get children active and helps to cement understanding. If children are using orienteering skills as they run around the grounds they are not only engaging with the PE curriculum, but they are also being introduced to what could become for some a lifetime sport.

Broadening horizons Residentials
One recent study found that nearly a quarter of children between the age of five and 16 think that playing a computer game is a form of exercise. While computers and IT are a central part of modern life, we need to raise awareness of alternative activities. Visits to nature and bird reserves, for example, all help to foster an interest in activities that are accessible outside school as well as within. A visit to a local water sports provider while studying the Vikings could not only bring a Viking invasion to life, but could also open the door to weekend activities such as sailing, canoeing and kayaking.

A visit to a residential outdoor education centre has the potential to impact positively on a range of health and well-being issues. As well as the outdoor activities (such as canoeing, hill walking, climbing, biking) that often form the basis of the visit, the social aspects can have an equally positive effect. Meal times, where children sit and eat healthy, nutritious meals together – sometimes learning how to use a knife and fork properly for the first time – allow important life skills to be experienced and learnt. The importance of nutrition and its connection to exercise makes sense when the next activity is climbing a mountain. Pre‑visit work could look at the nutritional values of what is on the menu (a good link between E centre and school) and post course links with local facilities provide the chance for activities to be continued back at home.  

High quality outdoor learning
The English Outdoor Council identifies health and well being as being one of 10 outcomes that can be achieved through High Quality Outdoor Learning (HQOL). It reads: “Increasing engagement with the natural environment through the education system can therefore produce a number of beneficial health outcomes, such as increased levels of physical activity, helping tackle childhood obesity and greater well-being and potentially improving mental health.”

HQOL goes on to describe the behaviours and characteristics of children and young people ‘who are learning to appreciate the benefits of physical fitness and the lifelong value of participation in healthy active leisure activities’.

Children and young people should: keep themselves fit through regular physical activity; have a positive self-image; talk about the benefits to their health through participation in physical outdoor activities; adopt a healthy lifestyle, including healthy eating appropriate to the demands of their activities; understand the risks to fitness and health posed by smoking, alcohol and drugs, and set an example in their own lifestyle; walk or cycle where this is a realistic and safe option, or take other regular exercise; want to continue their interest in outdoor activities beyond school and into adult life; independently participate in follow up courses where these are available;  understand how much exercise is required to remain healthy; and are aware of the links between physical and emotional well-being.

Outdoor learning, whether undertaken in school, the surrounding area or further afield on residentials and expeditions has the potential to positively effect the health and well-being, and ultimately the life chances, of children and young people across all ages. Developing a whole school approach to outdoor learning could have the potential to change lives.

Dave Harvey is the National Chair of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres and Head of Residential Provision at the Brathay Trust. High Quality Outdoor Learning is published by the English Outdoor Council and is available through the Institute for Outdoor Learning.

Further informatIon