From outdoor learning to lifelong learning

With more and more schools looking to take learning outside of the classroom, Dave Harvey of the Brathay Trust looks at how residential centres help schools to develop the ‘whole child’.

Outdoor learning is a concept that has been around for many years. In one form or another, many people have appreciated that experiences that take place in the outdoors and use the environment to affect knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours can be inspirational and transformative. This belief has led to the establishment of outdoor education and personal development organisations which use adventurous programmes to develop the personal, social and environmental awareness of young people.

Schools have long understood the power of the natural environment as a medium for teaching and learning. Many primary schools now incorporate outdoor learning strategies into their school-based curriculums, and the introduction of initiatives such as Forest Schools has enabled further engagement, often away from the school site. Opportunities to develop social skills, teamwork, leadership, subject knowledge, self-awareness and confidence abound in the outdoors; whether you are in a canoe, on a lake or outside in the school grounds on a cold December day, situations are real and actions often have very real consequences.

One organisation that seeks to maximise the opportunities for young people in a wide range of settings is the Brathay Trust, a children’s charity based in the Lake District. Brathay works with young people from a wide range of backgrounds and settings with the overarching aim of increasing their life chances. Underpinning this mission is their model of youth development, a theory of change that takes young people through self-awareness to empowerment and, ultimately, taking action. Programmes are based on experiential learning and many of them use outdoor activities as vehicles for development. Whether the groups’ focus is personal and social development in Year 4, leadership in Year 7 or narrowing the achievement gap with Year 10s, Brathay adopts the same approach that seeks to maximise the conditions for learning and achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Residentials are a great leveller, providing a new environment where participants are equal and existing barriers and hierarchies can be broken down. The extended time period and intensity of a residential experience is key to developing relationships and learning opportunities. Participants can create a new community away from their normal distractions that gives them time and space to address their goals (both personal and learning-related) within a supportive environment. The memory of the visit and the shared experiences of participants help to maintain the sense of community back in school.

Creating the conditions for learning
Well-designed programmes that deliberately focus on meeting the school’s specific goals, and which are ideally part of a progression, allow time for the participants to experience new activities and challenges and for each one to take learning from the experience which is both powerful and meaningful. This also applies to teachers and visiting staff, many of whom will return from the residential with a much greater appreciation of their students’ strengths as well as their own.

Brathay’s different centres are a key part of the experience which, along with the quality of delivery staff and the tailored programmes, all contribute to the way that group and individual needs are met. Quality badges such as the Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) Quality Badge and the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres (AHOEC) Gold Standard are both indicators of high quality provision.

Achieving the desired outcomes
Brathay’s work focuses on children’s strengths, building on what young people can do rather than what they can’t. One of the key goals is to encourage greater self-awareness, a process that eventually leads to a realisation of the skills they need to meet their goals. For some, that process will start with a residential in primary school that broadens their horizons and helps them to realise what they have to do to live in and contribute to a community. For others it might be a specific course of action that helps them make key changes in their lives as they move towards leaving school and adulthood.

Outdoor activities are often used during residentials as vehicles for the development of personal, social and environmental understanding. Activities that require persistence and determination and make use of the challenges found on mountains, lakes and rivers can have a powerful impact and provide opportunities for learning that don’t exist in other contexts. Curriculum and development goals can be met in other ways, however, and being in a new place provides many chances to engage with geography, the arts, numeracy, literacy, history and science. Involving the group in the planning, maximising achievement through differentiation and challenge, and having structured review time helps to make sense of the experience, and capitalises on the potential for learning.

Whatever the programme, some things will remain the same. The learning spaces (such as the environment, the residential component itself), the activities that we have on offer and the approach are all foundation stones that underpin each course. Onto these building blocks go the needs and focus of the group which in turn leads to the selection and sequencing of activities, the appropriate challenge level and the conversations that bring out the learning.

What are the outcomes?

There is a wide range of outcomes that can be achieved through a residential. These include: developing team working and social skills; independence and resourcefulness; communication skills; managing feelings; planning and problem solving; risk awareness; resilience and determination; self-confidence and self esteem; creativity; and leadership.

It is often the case that the full impact of a residential is felt many years later and not just immediately afterwards. The effects will be felt in school by pupils and teachers alike, and the memories will last a lifetime.

Further Information

David Harvey is Head of Residential Provision at the Brathay Trust in the Lake District, and former National Chair of the AHOEC.