Take the classroom outside: The benefits of outdoor teaching

Natalie Harling

Natalie Harling is Head of Education at The Outward Bound Trust. During her 15 years with The Trust, she has been instrumental in developing Education Partnerships with a wide selection of schools across the UK. Natalie initiated The Trust’s Education Advisory Boards for Scotland and England. She has an active passion in developing the opportunities for The Trust to support and engage in the national curriculum and curriculum for excellence. From experience Natalie has seen how senior management and governors in schools appreciate The Trust’s biennial Social Impact Report, which supports and proves the value of an outdoor learning residential.

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Website: www.outwardbound.org.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Do British pupils get enough of the outdoors during lesson time? What can al fresco teaching offer both students and teachers? Natalie Harling, the Outward Bound Trust’s head of education development, explains why a bit of fresh air can do the education system a lot of good.

Being outdoors is good for you. This is something we are taught from an early age that fresh air and exercise, both indoors and outdoors, are beneficial to our wellbeing. However, as teachers we usually associate the outdoors with playtime, free time and enjoyment. It’s Friday, it’s half term, it’s the summer holidays – and perhaps not as the impactful outdoor place of learning that it can be.

It’s fair to say that many parents and teachers are increasingly worried about the lack of time spent outdoors. The impact of modern technology in all aspects of life, not only in school but at home is changing how the next generation interacts in society. Whilst tablets, mobiles, laptops have brought many obviously positive advancements in society it has also impacted on many soft skills essential for producing well rounded individuals. We worry more than ever about the time children and young people spend indoors and leisure time can easily become equated with being alone and inside.

With pressure to gain top grades, to come out well in inspections and on league tables, schools must be continuously aware of not wasting precious time or money on non-essentials.

So often even those teachers who recognise the value of taking children outside think of it as playtime, break time, a frivolity. Taking time out of the classroom can be seen as positive, if you have the time and resources, but generally it is regarded as a luxury, not a necessity and certainly not essential to the core educational aims of most educational establishments – to learn.

But a new Social Impact Report 2014 shows just how misguided this attitude is. Not only is being outdoors good for students, it is increasingly being seen and proven to be a vital and necessary element of learning, especially social and emotional development. Correctly supervised, outdoor learning can reap benefits far in excess of expectations. Outside the constraints of the school environment, participants can test themselves in new ways, both physically and emotionally, learning first-hand the practical life skills that simply could not be learned within the confines of the classroom.

Soft skills that can be developed include independence, leadership, teamwork, self-awareness and resilience, to name but a few. One of the important consequences of outdoor learning is that it can help improve academic learning too. Many schools have reported in the Social Impact Report that students who take part in outdoor experiential residential courses come back with renewed energy and motivation that ultimately impacts positively on results, with 68% of teachers reporting improved performance in the classroom.

Moreover, students are not the only ones to benefit. The report measures and evaluates the impact outdoor learning has had not only on students but also on teachers. Between 2012-13, over 2,000 teachers and over 22,000 students from 386 schools participated in outdoor residential learning programmes, and the results of the report demonstrate the huge impact participation had on students’ confidence, effort and perseverance. 97% of teachers reported improvements to pupils’ relationships with others, while 85% reported improved attitude towards learning. An unexpected bonus of these courses is that teachers’ relationships with students and their own teaching skills also improved. 80% of teachers said they gained in some way themselves from the course.

How Millbank Academy Factor Embrace Outdoor Learning

Alyson Russen, Principal at Millbank Academy in central London has put into place an interesting four-year programme for its primary students. Year 3s attend a residential field study centre, Year 4s travel by tube to camp in Epping Forest where they erect tents and cook for themselves. Year 5s attend a residential course and Year 6s travel to France. Alyson Russen comments:

“Since this programme was created I have seen time and again how our students gain in confidence once offered a dramatic new horizon in which to learn. As each year’s outdoor experience is designed to be incrementally more challenging, I have seen with this the increase in children’s academic results and other positive impacts.”

Using Outdoor Learning To Support Transition Into Secondary Schools

For many young people, starting a new secondary school can be extremely daunting. Outdoor learning programmes can greatly assist in the transition from primary to secondary school. A classic example is that of Bedales School in Petersfield, Hampshire, who wanted to help its new students cope with the challenges surrounding this change.

The school identified its key priorities were to increase individual, team and leadership skills and encourage positive attitudes among peers as well as a stronger sense of community. Participation in a tailor-made outdoor learning programme lead to impressive results, including positive improvements in resilience, team working skills and attitudes to peers.

Philip Brittain, the school’s Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Coordinator said: “On returning from these courses, we find that our students embrace new challenges, develop persistence and see effort as the route to success.”

Supporting OFSTED and curriculum requirements

As readers will be aware, the requirements of OFSTED’s framework include consideration of SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) development, equal opportunities, curriculum enrichment and partnerships, as well as academic achievement. Schools engaging in outdoor learning programmes can access fantastic opportunities for meeting all these requirements in an exciting and enriching way. Standing on a mountain top, appreciating the greatness of nature, engaging in teamwork, mixing with students from outside their usual peer group or perhaps ethnic background, are not only intrinsically challenging and uplifting but they all support a broad personal development that has far-reaching effects for the individual.

Embedding Outdoor Learning - Theory

When delivered in inspiring and challenging wilderness environments, outdoor learning programmes work as powerful catalysts for changing behaviours in students. Our company, for example, uses Kolb’s learning cycle to develop and structure residential programmes with four elements - Experiencing, Reviewing, Concluding and Planning – reflecting how students consolidate knowledge and learning. The principle is that the greater the challenge given to an individual, the greater the reflection and theorising they will undertake, and the greater the intensity of the learning experience. This process allows students to learn new skills, attitudes or even entirely new ways of thinking.

In summary, experiential outdoor learning does have a central role to play within education and student development. Taking students outside and letting them experience new challenges such as abseiling, gorge scrambling and canoeing, for example, will always be fun and provide exercise and challenge. The important element is to embed the soft skills developed during these activities to support the pupils’ personal and social development. This will provide them with resilience, team working skills, self-belief and help to equip them for life and develop them into independent and responsible individuals. So, those ideas we learned growing up turn out to be truer than we imagined. Being outdoors really is good for you.

Do you take your pupils outdoors? If so, let us know about it in the comments.

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