Getting the most out of outdoor learning

Dr Katherine Forsey

Dr Katherine Forsey is a retained consultant for Gratnells, providers of storage and staging to schools and colleges and a leading outdoor education specialist. She is also the coordinator and an expert panel member for Learning Rooms, the acclaimed online free resource for teachers who want to improve teaching and learning. Katherine works with individual schools, local authorities and charities such as the Woodland Trust, commercial organisations and nationally recognised CPD centres such as the National Science Learning Network.

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As far back as 2008, an Ofsted report concluded that: “The first-hand experiences of learning outside the classroom can help to make subjects more vivid and interesting for pupils and enhance their understanding. It can also contribute significantly to pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.” This report evaluated the impact of learning outside the classroom in 27 schools and colleges across England. It went on to say that “Learning outside the classroom was most successful when it was an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities.”

School grounds and local outdoor green spaces are often an underused location for learning. But they are a valuable, free, teaching resource right on your doorstep. The school grounds are a key part of your teaching toolkit, and should be used to support delivery of multiple statutory and non-statutory curriculum requirements.

First things first, learning outside of the classroom often means learning outside of your comfort zone, so why do it?

Apart from being free, fun and engaging, research highlights the demonstrable educational benefits of learning outdoors and provides a source of support, justification and an important evidence base for educators looking to undertake more learning outside the classroom. As well as the educational benefits, the health benefits are also widely reported. There is a proven positive relationship between physical activity and improved cognitive functioning that includes concentration, memory and language.

In a foreword to a Royal Geographical Society sponsored document on ‘Out-of-class Learning’ in 2005, the then chairman of the Education and Skills Select Committee explained the relationship between the fun and value of outdoor activities in this way:

Out-of-classroom learning makes a unique contribution to a child’s education and offers varied benefits to them, not least developing a sense of place and wonder for the world around them. By taking part in these experiences throughout their time at school, children learn lessons that complement those taught within the classroom. At the same time they also have fun and get some exercise in the fresh air.

Contact with nature has also been associated with improved symptoms among students with attention deficit disorder, and improved self-discipline among young inner-city girls.

But that’s not all. We have the curriculum on our side too! It places a strong emphasis on using the outdoors - with topics such as plants, habitats and seasonal change, it is clear to see the links and almost impossible to cover these areas effectively without going outside. There are many cross-curricular links too, with opportunities for integration of literacy and numeracy for a start. Use of outdoor learning activities can occur across all subject areas if built into curriculum planning, with clear learning objectives that consider what your students will be learning, how it is best learned, and the most effective place for this to take place.

The benefits of developing and undertaking outdoor learning activities:

  • Increased attainment.
  • Better physical and mental health.
  • Reduced stress levels.
  • Increased motivation to learn.
  • Improved attitudes towards the environment.
  • Better behaviour that is even continued when learning is moved back indoors.
  • Enhanced communication skills.
  • Increased outdoor skill set.
  • Increased self-reliance.
  • Improved memory through experiencing something new and unfamiliar.

As the English Outdoor Council said in an executive summary of a report published in May 2010:

There is now crystal clear and uncontestable evidence in support of learning outside the classroom.

One of the Select Committee’s conclusions was that “Outdoor learning can benefit pupils of all ages and can be successful in a variety of settings… (it) enriches the curriculum and can improve education attainment.

If you can develop outdoor learning activities on your doorstep, you remove the need and cost of travelling off-site, and save valuable teaching time. Once the resource is in place, you can use it regularly as an integrated part of your teaching, and not just for a special one-off outing.


Ponds are a brilliant resource for outdoor learning and a valuable habitat for wildlife. But if you don’t have a pond, or if you have inherited an unloved pond, what can you do? The best time of year to create a new pond is during the autumn - this will give it time to settle before the spring. Look for a level area, with partial sunshine, away from main thoroughfares and aim for a natural deeper area to attract the most wildlife.

Minibeast Habitats

Perfect for the dark, secluded corners of your school grounds, creating minibeast habitats is simple and your students will love exploring them. Using logs, twigs and leaf mould / litter, choose a site that is both well-shaded and damp to create your habitat piles. Pick a secluded spot with as little foot traffic as possible. Under tree canopies where the grass doesn’t grow is a good place, just make sure the branches are high enough to be out of the way of pupils and teachers.

Story Sticks and Sticky Strips

Picking leaves and flowers isn’t always necessary. Spotter sheets for different seasons can be ticked off to record your finds, and are great if you only have small quantities of plant material or will be surveying the same area repeatedly. You can also make your own flower bingo cards tailored to your own site, or a free app like Pic Collage is great for snapping and collating your finds. Flowers can be collected on sticky strips by taking ‘fairy pinches’ of individual petals so as not to destroy the flower.

Top tips for managing groups outdoors:

  • Work in small groups that the children recognise, like the ones they are in for numeracy or literacy.
  • Redirect individual groups if they are going off-track, rather than stopping the whole class.
  • Set your equipment out in advance.
  • Have a base spot, or muster point.
  • Move between the groups as they work.
  • Set clearly defined boundaries.
  • Create a set of outdoor classroom rules with     the students.
  • Communicate with parents in advance regarding appropriate clothing.
  • Have back up indoor activities.

Probably the most learned analytical approach to the whole area of creative learning environments in education came in a systematic literature review published in 2013. It was jointly authored by Dan Davies, Chris Collier, Rebecca Digby, Penny Hay and Alan Howe of the Centre for Research in Early Scientific Learning at Bath Spa University, together with Divya Jindal-Snape of the University of Dundee.

This mammoth work reviewed no fewer than 210 pieces of educational research, policy and professional literature relating to creative environments, both on pupil attainment and the development of teacher professionalism.

In one section of its conclusions entitled Use of the Outdoor Environment, the paper reported “There is reasonable evidence across several studies that taking pupils out of the classroom and working in an outdoor environment for part of their time in school can foster their creative development.” They summarised that part of the reason for this might be connected with “ownership and collaboration.”

They went on to reference a case study of a Primary school which worked with landscape architects to transform its outside space “once outdoors, time and space was more owned by pupils”. They also quoted from Bancroft et al (2008) that something as simple as “an initial walk... can provide a rich context for the purpose of discovering children’s schemas and interests on which teachers can build to enhance their creativity.”

Teaching outdoors is how we can make learning come alive for our students, enriching all subject areas, engaging and inspiring children to take their studies further. It’s only when you go outside and find real world examples that diagrams and theories have context, resonance and meaning. Outdoor learning activities should be used undertaken throughout the year; going outdoors shouldn’t be reserved for the occasional school trip but should be a regular, normal part of the school day at every time of year.

How do you embrace the outdoors with your pupils? Let us know below.

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