Outdoor learning may be current but it’s not new. What’s changing is the adoption of continuous outdoor learning programmes.
Outside the regular class or sports lessons there’s an increasing adoption in schools of outdoor learning. It comes in many guises, from day trips to the countryside, to a lesson every week in woodland, to an activity centre residential, to Scouts, Combined Cadet Forces and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
It’s is very current and it happens in junior and senior schools alike. You’re likely to hear of a school near you launch an outdoor learning initiative. So what is it and is it important in your school choice?
Outdoor learning is a broad church of activities
It is a broad church of activities with the common features of being away from home or outside the classroom, in the open air, usually involving woodland or water, and offering a different educational experience to class based learning.
In primary schools outdoor education usually starts with horticulture, pond dipping, woodland walks, observing flora and fauna, even husbandry. Some schools have their own outdoor classrooms to facilitate an otherwise class based lesson outside. In particular science, design technology, art and geography. As children get older they progress to building dens, camping, and bush craft. Then come the adventure residentials with high ropes, zip wires, assault courses or water based activities such as canoeing and sailing. At senior school outdoor education is more geared towards adventurous activities.
Outdoor learning trips and outdoor learning programmes
An outdoor activity trip is valuable. Though activities can be sensory and cerebral it is the adventurous and exhilarating that older children enjoy more. And those are the ones likely to remain in their schooldays memories long after they have left school.
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 outdoor learning becoming 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, Forest Schools account for 10% of all pre-schools.
The recent surge in popularity of outdoor education is a reaction to our fears that urban and sedentary lifestyles are affecting our childrens’ 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 schools offer outdoor learning?
20% of state primary schools and 30% of independent primary schools offer a continuous outdoor learning programme. It can be onsite or offsite, either once a week or once every two weeks. The number is closer to 15% of senior schools.
50% of all primary state schools offer adventure activity residential trips, usually to pupils in Years 5 or 6. Nearly all secondary schools offer them.
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 such as Forest School or the Duke of Edinburgh Award 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.