Lessons from the outdoors

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Clare Campbell ventures beyond the classroom for some alternative learning.

I truly believe that anything that can be learned in a classroom can be learned outdoors, and often in ways which are more enjoyable.

Research has shown that outdoor learning is an essential part of a child’s development and well-being and it is not simply the prerogative of the very young. 

The American author Richard Louv warns us of the dangers of ‘nature deficit disorder’ in children who spend too much time indoors connected to technology and disengaged from the world around them. The pandemic has exacerbated this situation for many children. 

Many families do not have gardens at home and spend limited time outdoors in nature. So in my school we decided to do something about it. We wanted the children to have access to a forest school area that they can use on a daily basis, whatever the weather (which here in England can be very variable). So that’s what we created! 

The guiding principle for outdoor learning at our school is that quote attributed to a certain Shanti:

‘At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair messy and your eyes sparkling.’ 

The Forest School concept was formulated in the 1950s as a way to describe the Danish practice of children using the outdoor, natural environment as part of their everyday school life, and it was brought to the United Kingdom in 1995. The first principles of forest school require that all forest school learners are to be:

  • Equal, unique and valuable
  • Competent to explore and discover
  • Entitled to experience appropriate risk and challenge
  • Entitled to choose and to initiate and drive their own learning and development
  • Entitled to experience regular success
  • Entitled to develop positive relationships with themselves and other people and the natural world.

A Forest School is ideally based within a forest (surprise surprise!) but if that’s not possible the main thing is that the setting should not be the usual classroom. A school could have a wooded area and this would qualify. Many schools under-utilise their grounds and in a time where space is a luxury for many institutions, we wanted to use our underused outdoor space as an additional learning area. 

Forest school allows for a different type of learning that excites and engages the learners because it is child led.

As an educator I know that serious learning can be done through play-based activities.  Outdoor learning provides deep learning through concrete and practical, real world problems that need to be solved as opposed to abstract problems on a piece of blank paper which some children can find difficult to process. 

Children learn best through play and by solving a problem outdoors and making learning as practical as possible they transfer this real world knowledge to the abstract pen and paper world of the classroom.

As a headteacher for 12 years and a teacher for 22 years, I have seen children improve their confidence, self-esteem, collaborative and enquiry skills from learning outdoors and I am a real advocate for it.

So how did we get started? First our school council created a mood board of ideas to express its vision of the perfect outdoor classroom. We wanted to transform an underused area of our school into an outdoor learning space, our teachers visited other schools for inspiration and shared their photos and videos with the school council who then gathered the ideas of the whole school community. 

We designed an action plan and began working with a designer to create our ground plan, taking into account all the children’s ideas. 

They wanted a campfire area where they could cook and toast marshmallows, have hot chocolate and make food for themselves.

They wanted areas where they could hide, build, climb, be wild, and be artists, gardeners, scientists and sportspeople. 

We worked with play specialists to draw up risk assessments for each area: muddy play, water play, climbing and building with loose parts – because we knew that, as the author Roald Dahl put it: “The more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves.” 

By introducing children to small risks and letting them conduct their own risk assessments they truly benefit from their own independence.

They learn the life skills needed to work in collaboration with other children and develop resilience and perseverance. 

Trust is a huge element of forest school. This must come from both the children, staff and parents. Teachers must trust that the children will abide by the ground rules set by the school and the children must trust that this will keep them safe but also allow them to have fun and learn at the same time. Parents must trust the school to keep their children as safe as possible.

We worked together with the Royal Horticultural Society to teach our children and staff about growing and planting. We planted over 250 trees with the help of City of Trees and the Woodland Trust, we planted thousands of wild flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs in our school grounds.

The designer worked with our land, not against it.

He knew our field was very boggy and that drainage was an issue which had rendered parts of it unusable, so he worked with the contours of the land and made a huge moat, which is one of the children’s favourite places to play. All the water now drains into the moat leaving the rest of the forest school area dry and accessible all year round. 

Another favourite area is the dry river bed, where the children can use sand, pebbles and rocks to build dams or the early years children can play and create dinosaur habitats, rivers and oceans in their creative games. 

The children made a giant bug hotel and have been learning about insects and wildlife.

They  absolutely love learning outdoors and we found we can teach the whole curriculum beyond the classroom walls. The children collaborate with each other, they become designers, builders, and they use their social and communication skills. Outdoors we watch them become land artists, scientists, engineers, technicians, mathematicians and environmentalists. 

Being a Catholic school, the concept of stewardship of creation is a very important part of our curriculum. 

Opportunities to learn outdoors help our children to be in tune with creation. We encourage them to see the earth as our common home which we should take care of and look after. We use the outdoors for prayer and meditation in nature and children have opportunities to reflect and take time to explore their faith in new ways. 

As a Catholic school, faith is an extremely important element to the school day. It is so powerful to show the children that a Mass can take place in different places and not just in church or the school hall. 

Worshipping outdoors lets the children see that this is God’s world and they can worship whenever and wherever they want. And it reminds them of their responsibility to take care of the earth as a gift received from God and to pass it on unharmed to future generations. 

We have even created an outdoor chapel which is used for prayer and worship.

The children love forest school and our talented staff really harness the potential of learning outdoors. 

But most of all … they all love the mud!

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