The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Anita Foster

Effective teaching in the great outdoors

Outdoor learning can be a great way to enrich a school's curriculum and engage pupils in new opportunities beyond the typical forest school afternoon.

When I tell people what I do, I often get a response along the lines of ‘Oh, forest schools?’

While I appreciate much of what forest schools can do, there is far greater potential in outdoor teaching and learning.

Outstanding outside teaching and learning is not just possible for younger children. The amount of time spent outside at school decreases from EYFS through KS1 and KS2, until by the time we get to key stages 3 and 4 it is often limited to PE and residential visits.

KS2 pupils have complained that it’s unfair for KS1 children to be allowed more time outside, and ‘have all the good stuff in their yard’. One child told me that they are not looking forward to secondary school because ‘they won’t be able to play anymore’.

Almost every day we are reminded of our duty to combat rising inactivity and obesity, support positive mental health and promote ‘real-life’ skills such as problem-solving, communication and resilience.

Outside learning can do much to meet these challenges. When planned and delivered effectively, it can not only compliment but enrich the curriculum, raise attainment and improve engagement. 

However, outside learning is at its most potent when its strands are interwoven with the formal school curriculum, rather than undertaken as isolated windows within a child’s education. 

Overcoming barriers

Outside learning is nothing new. However, there is increasing evidence and recognition of is benefits. Recent reports from the 'Learning away' and 'Natural connections' projects highlight the wide-ranging benefits of outdoor learning, along with practical examples of how schools have transformed learning for their pupils.

I appreciate how much pressure teachers and schools are under. At the same time, I know that many schools recognise the benefits of taking learning beyond the classroom.

So, what is really stopping us? This is a question I often ask at training and CPD sessions. Time is often mentioned, but most barriers – real or perceived – often come down to confidence and permission. These are barriers we must overcome if we are to reap the rewards.

Outdoor learning can greatly enrich a school's curriculum, as John Kyrle High School has found.

Support and discussion 

Rather than simply saying that ‘outdoor is good, indoor is bad’, I am suggesting that we should look at the whole learning environment that is available to us and how we link different spaces together. Look to embed opportunities for learning outside the classroom in your curriculum – think of ‘instead of’, not ‘as well as’.

Think beyond your ‘forest school afternoon’. Make learning kinaesthetic, experiential, contextual and applied. Get the children involved in the planning and management. Build understanding, creativity, responsibility and confidence. 

There is plenty of help and support out there:

There are also numerous support and discussion groups on different social media sites, including LinkedIn and Facebook; many full of ideas and top tips.

So, if you are learning about World War 2, why not design a ‘dig for victory’ garden for your school’s grounds, and learn about:

  • measuring
  • area and perimeter
  • compound shapes
  • number function
  • coordinates
  • scale factors
  • fractions and decimals
  • yield
  • data handling
  • presentation…and that’s just maths! 

Even better, once you have designed it, get outside and dig it!

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