Outdoor Learning: Why a Whole School Approach?

Just the other day I was talking to a friend and fellow teacher. She currently teaches Year 2 and was telling me about some of the challenges she is facing. She mentioned how she had some children who needed to make lots of progress, especially after the disruption to their education from COVID 19. It was the usual concerns such as the children not retaining the information, behaviour e.t.c.

Why not try outdoor learning?

That’s when I asked if she had ever taken the class outdoors to do their learning? To be fair she gave me that look that said, ‘I would love to but my timetable is already crammed and I’m already struggling to fit everything into the day.’ Every teacher can empathise with this and with the current craziness surrounded by COVID, things haven’t got any easier.

The conversation went along the lines of, how the children were missing some basics skills and how she needed to show senior leadership that she was trying to bridge the gaps. If she took the children outdoors it would appear that they weren’t targeting the gaps and where would that leave her in her performance management review.

On your own

This is when I began explaining the number of children I’ve seen who have struggled with concepts. Outdoor learning gave them an alternative way to explore and consolidate their knowledge and understanding. However, it also dawned on me the reluctance to start using the outdoor environment for teaching and learning if the whole school is not on board.

You only have to look on the internet for outdoor learning training and you will be bombarded with different training available such as, Level 1, 2, 3 Outdoor Learning Practitioners, Outdoor Learning Professionals, Learning Outside the Classroom Practitioner, Forest School, Beach School, e.t.c . However, this training is usually for one person to attend and one person to implement. The training might also be delivered by someone who has not trained as a teacher and has never taught in a classroom. Yet, that one person is expected to go back into school and put strategies in place, that not only get everyone on board, but also ensure success.

Training enthusiasm

I’m sure you can picture this… a colleague has attended a training course, bounces into the staff meeting, full of new ideas and enthusiasm. However, you didn’t go, you weren’t there to pick up on all the information your colleague did and at the end of the day your enthusiasm isn’t going to be the same because you still have the children who can’t do XYZ. It’s just not the same as attending training yourself. I’m sure you’ve also been on the flip side of this where you have tried to feed back from training you have attended, but the strategies never really gain momentum or have a sustainable impact across the school.

Frustration

It can be such a frustrating process but, we are constantly bombarded with; new initiatives, schemes, strategies the latest educational fads, that it can be difficult to keep up with. That is also why the strategies and system that one person tries to implement is rarely successful especially if the senior leadership team are not on board!

A whole school approach

A whole school approach is the key to any new strategy being successful as all stake holders have a common understanding and goal. It raises the profile because teachers know their leadership teams are on board and they know they are facing the new approach as a united front. It also allows the school to look at thier approach and how it fits in with what they are currently doing. I always say outdoor learning shouldn’t be a timetabled additional extra. It should be a normal part of our teaching and learning, which is an extension of the excellent practice already in place.

What would a whole school approach look like?

After speaking with my friend, I soon realised that her school didn’t appear to have a whole school approach to using resources and strategies. Let’s take maths for example. In most Reception classes you would expect to see a number line. Somewhere for the children to physically pick up, move and order the numbers. It is there to reinforce those concepts such as, number order, which number is missing, what comes before, what comes after? Successfully implementing outdoor learning means replicating the same opportunities outdoors. In this instance you could use leaves and pegs and in doing so there will be new opportunities to consolidate learning. A classic example of this is when the wind blows a leaf off the number line and the children naturally try to replace the missing number. It provides more opportunities for them to master their skills. The numbers become familiar and the children build confidence using them.

It goes without saying that it is not only key stage 1 where this is important. In key stage 2 the children can build on their knowledge of number, for example a number line to order decimals. This can still be done on leaves. It is tactile, fun and what’s more if you happen to accidentally leave the resources out at playtime some of the children will continue their learning! 

We all know that having a firm understanding of numbers and number systems will help the children to master their mathematical skills and having a whole school approach improves success.

In it together

So many times I have seen the integration of outdoor learning become unsuccessful because only one member of staff is trained as an outdoor learning practitioner. If that member of staff leaves, goes on maternity or simply cannot engage the rest of the team, it can fizzle out. There is no whole school approach or agreed importance. It becomes an additional extra, something that is difficult to implement and has very little weighting of importance.

It takes a forward thinking leadership team to truly value the integration of outdoor learning and its huge benefits. The benefits for not just teaching and learning but for well being in children and adults.

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