Griffin Primary School students watering trees

Outdoor learning reaches the parts classrooms can’t

The Woodland Trust’s Liz Carney explores the behavioural and educational benefits of getting pupils out of the classroom, planting trees and engaging with their natural environment.

Teaching and trees are made for each other. On the surface they are an unlikely partnership, but increasing numbers of school are discovering that mud, maths, spades and science are natural bedfellows. And that getting back to nature boosts getting back to basics.

The Woodland Trust’s Karen Letten, heads the charity’s work with schools and says: “I believe planting trees creates inspiring outdoor learning spaces, with educational as well as environmental benefits. Woods and trees offer innovative settings where children can get up close to wildlife, and develop vital skills.”

Over the past six years the Woodland Trust has delivered almost three million saplings free to schools and educational institutions across the UK. The tree packs can create a copse or hedge for a wild harvest or a burst of year round colour.

Funding comes from Sainsbury’s, IKEA, players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, Yorkshire Tea and since last year, Defra, (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Defra is providing support for additional packs for state‑funded primary schools in England.

Outdoor classrooms
Planting trees supports the recently introduced new national curriculum in many ways, including helping children to identify British native species like oak, rowan and silver birch.

But giving youngsters the chance to plant also opens a new door to creating a natural, sustainable and dynamic outdoor ‘classroom.’

In London’s urban Wandsworth last spring, children from Griffin Primary School energetically explored their nature area, laughing as the season’s new frogs bounced on the grass near a small pond.

The school is surrounded by high rise flats, and a busy road, but science and early years leader Kirsten Wheatley is on a mission to make sure her city children don’t miss out on nature. As the tree pack is opened and the spades handed around, the digging begins. Dormant, and twig like, only the bare roots give a clue to the promise of a green future. As hazel, dogwood and wild cherry go in, there’s a shriek, as a worm is picked up by one of the boys who lets it wriggle across his palm. Horror and fascination in equal measure cross the faces of his class mates as they watch the slimy creature slip back into the earth.

Kirsten talks to them about the worm, how it will help the soil, which helps the trees. She’s a passionate believer in the power of outdoor learning: “Outdoor classrooms are just as valuable as indoor ones. I’ve seen the way working with nature brings interest and activity to lessons; it gives children more drive and enthusiasm for learning. Many of our early years children prefer to learn outdoors – it is good for them physically, and socially, somehow they relax and their language develops more quickly.

“The trees will boost our nature area, creating habitats for wildlife and a living science lab.

“Our school is in an urban area, and many of our children won’t have the opportunity to visit parks, or woods, or get up close to nature. By planting trees at school we can give them that experience; teach lessons in an engaging way and make our school a greener and more pleasant place.”

And the school isn’t just using trees for education. Extra saplings are being planted on the boundary facing the busy road. As they mature, they will purify the air, combat pollution and create shade.

To complement planting, teachers can download cross-curricular Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 resources from the Woodland Trust website; with topics such as measuring and exploring a hedge, food chains, storytelling and natural craft ideas. There are also suggested activities like an assembly based around the book, The Man Who Planted Trees.

Limited outdoor space
Conscious that not all schools have the space for trees, particularly in urban areas, Karen Letten says: “From this autumn we’ll be able to offer help to schools that have found it hard to take part, with assistance to find locations in their local community where children will be able to plant their tree packs. We know from our research it’s a memory children treasure for years to come and often starts their relationship off with the natural world and all the benefits that brings.”

Research and evidence
What about the research? What evidence is there that teaching in a natural environment makes a difference to learning?

Last month a large scale study concluded that it benefits both children and teachers. The four year-long Natural Connections Demonstration Project involved 125 schools, many in areas of deprivation, across the South West of England.

Delivered by Plymouth University, teachers were given the chance to bring their lessons outdoors, and 40,000 primary and secondary school pupils took part in a diverse range of experiences, such as a maths lesson in a local park, or drama on a playing field. Teachers and pupils gave it top marks, with 92 per cent of teachers surveyed saying that pupils were more engaged with learning when outdoors and 85 per cent seeing a positive impact on their behaviour.

The majority of children also thought they learned better and achieved more when learning outside. 92 per cent of pupils involved in the project said they enjoyed their lessons more when outdoors, with 90 per cent feeling happier and healthier as a result.

Additionally, 79 per cent of teachers reported positive impacts on their teaching practice. Almost 70 per cent of teachers said that outdoor learning has had a positive impact on their job satisfaction and 72 per cent reported improved health and wellbeing.

The Natural Connections project was funded by Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs), Natural England and Historic England.

The results echo previous research analysis by King’s College London. ‘Beyond barriers to learning outside the classroom in natural environments’ reported that environmental-based education makes other school subjects rich and relevant and gets apathetic students excited about learning.

It suggested that exposure to the natural environment could lower the effects of various mental health issues that can make it difficult for students to pay attention in the classroom and found that childhood participation in ‘wild’ and ‘domesticated’ nature, such as picking flowers or produce, planting trees or seeds, and caring for plants in childhood, have a positive relationship to adult environmental attitudes.

Woodland Trust commissioned research shows that primary age children who take part in tree planting remember it as a significant experience, even into their teenage years; by planting trees they felt that they were ‘doing their bit’ to help the natural environment.

The local environment
At the aptly-named Outwoods Edge Primary School in Loughborough, as well as planting trees, children have had the experience of walking to their local wood. To keep them engaged during the walk they created a journey stick by tying leaves and flowers they found along the way to a stick they were given.

“The use of journey sticks encouraged the children to see different textures and colours on the way to the wood,” said Emma, a parent-helper.

Once there, the children’s first task was to pinpoint their location on a map. Then they collected natural materials, twigs and leaves, to create landscape art on the woodland floor.

After a lunchtime picnic, pupils spent the afternoon looking for tracks to discover which animals lived in the wood.

“My favourite part was being outdoors, exploring and learning about trees – I know what they are called now. The art work was fun, and making journey sticks,” said John, aged seven.

Teacher, Richard Onions said it was a valuable experience: “The visit delivered a number of curriculum objectives in a very real and practical way, particularly in science, art and geography. It also had scope to meet many maths and English objectives and to use the trip as a stimulus to work back in the classroom.

“We also found the trip a really good opportunity to engage with pupils who sometimes struggle to sit still or focus in a classroom. Having the space to move and explore really benefitted them in terms of behaviour for learning.”

The Woodland Trust regularly asks schools which plant trees and participate in their Green Tree Schools Award to give feedback on their experience of teaching with trees:

“That was the coldest, muddiest day of my life; the school field looks like a mud bath. The children have had a ball,” said Rachel Macdonald, a teacher at Mill View Primary School, Chester.

“One child said that she thought only the Queen planted trees! What an uplifting and environmentally energising opportunity,” said Hungerford Primary School and Children’s Centre London.

“We had a whole school welly week. Our children from reception to year 6 were all very enthusiastic and engaged whilst planting and have taken great ownership of caring for the trees,” said Kingsham Primary School, Chichester.

“The children have become very excited about trees; we spent a whole afternoon, ‘learning with leaves’ using them in maths to work out the area and perimeter of irregular shapes, and to classify using Venn diagrams,” said Claydon Primary School, Ipswich.

Recent surveys found that three quarters of children spend less than an hour each day playing outside; and more than one in nine children in England haven’t set foot in a park, forest, beach or natural environment for at least twelve months. With results like that, learning outdoors is more important than ever.

Further information
Schools can apply for a free tree pack here: