Most prep and primary schools offer outdoor learning to their youngest children, but more schools are adopting continuous outdoor learning programmes for older pupils too.
Outside the regular class or sports lessons, most prep and primary schools offer outdoor learning. Usually a discrete session, it comes in many guises. From day trips to the countryside, to a lesson every week in woodland, to an activity centre residential, to Guides and Scouts. Even up to age-appropriate versions of the Combined Cadet Force and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
Schools have been very active in launching their outdoor learning programmes over the last five years, at least. So what is it and should it be important in your prep or primary school choice?
What is outdoor learning?
Outdoor learning is a broad church of activities, that take place outside the classroom, in the open air, usually involving woodland or water, and offering a different educational experience to class-based learning.
In prep and primary schools, outdoor education usually starts with horticulture, pond dipping, woodland walks, observing flora and fauna, even husbandry. Many schools have their own outdoor classrooms, eco or nature areas to facilitate an otherwise class-based lesson. In particular science, design technology, art and geography. As children get older, they progress to building dens, camping, and bushcraft, often off-site. Then come the adventure residentials with high ropes, zip wires, assault courses or water-based activities such as canoeing and sailing.
Trips and outdoor learning programmes
An outdoor activity trip is valuable. Though activities can be sensory and cerebral it is the adventurous and exhilarating elements that older children enjoy more. And those are the ones likely to remain in their memories of their school days long after they have left.
Trips and one-off outdoor educational experiences are different to an outdoor learning programme. A programme is continuous (once every week or two weeks).
As well as teaching specific skills it also embraces a philosophy. For example, Forest School is certainly about appreciation and respect for the natural environment. But one of the most important aspects of Forest School is that the activities are learner-led, not teacher-led.
At senior school, these philosophies transform to the importance of service to the community, learning new skills, expeditions and adventure. We can see all of these (and others) in the philosophies of the Scout and Guide movements, Adventure Service Challenge, Combined Cadet Force, Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. There are many more organisations that provide these opportunities outside a school environment, not least the National Citizen Service, launched by the UK Government in 2010.
Why is it so popular?
Some schools have outdoor education built into their curriculum and have done for many years. The Waldorf Steiner schools are a good example as are the Round Square organisation of schools. Forest School has been active since the 1950s in Scandinavia. In Denmark, specialist Forest Schools account for 10% of all pre-schools.
Even before COVID lockdowns, the uptick in popularity of outdoor education reflected fears that urban and sedentary lifestyles are affecting children’s health. The rise of childhood obesity and ADHD is well documented. There are also other influential studies that worry parents such as;
- Children spend twice as much time playing on screens than playing outside (2016, Unilever)
- 74% of 5-12 year-old children spend less time outside than prison inmates (2016, Unilever)
- Less than 10% of children have access to outdoor education (2016, Environment Agency)
- Less than 10% of children regularly play in wild spaces compared to over 50% a generation ago (2012, National Trust)
The benefits of outdoor learning
The list of benefits of outdoor learning is long and often anecdotal. But the most validated reasons are that outdoor education;
- Boosts self-confidence, self-esteem and self-reliance.
- Promotes team building, cooperation, camaraderie and personal responsibility within a group.
- Increases awareness of the Environment and our impact on it.
- Improves problem solving skills.
- Encourages risk taking and independent learning.
- Is beneficial to health; physical, mental, sensory and sleep.
How many prep and state primary schools offer outdoor learning?
In 2017, I estimated that 20% of state primary schools and 30% of prep schools offered outdoor learning to their pupils. Today, five years on, it’s closer to 80% of state primary schools and 90% of prep schools.
The standard offer is outdoor woodland/forest/beach school sessions for nursery, Reception, and maybe infant/pre-prep children. This is the ‘muddy wellies’, ‘muddy knees’, and ‘climbing trees’ element of the curriculum. The standard offer also includes some lessons outside, and an adventurous trip, usually for Year 6, or Years 6 to 8.
But outdoor learning is still a differentiator. Not just the number of adventurous trips. The point of differentiation is continuous outdoor education. Which means, regular significant sessions outdoors all the way through the school to the most senior pupils. Some of the best prep schools integrate outdoor education into the curriculum. Their ‘programmes’, ‘awards’, even ‘baccalaureates’ incorporate tiered levels of challenge, leadership, community service, and new skill acquisition.
Should the provision of outdoor learning affect your school choice?
Fun as they are, a trip to a zip-wire centre is probably not going to influence your choice of school. But if the school embraces a continuous outdoor learning programme, then that school is demonstrating a commitment to varied styles of learning and all the benefits that an outdoor education will bring. If you consider traditional pedagogy to be a priority, and that time spent away from maths, English and science as downtime, then outdoor learning won’t weigh heavily in your priorities. If you’re looking for a balanced and rounded education, then outdoor learning might be in your decision mix.