Sarah Dodds of Marlborough House School, Kent, waxes lyrical about the benefits of outdoor education, whatever the season
With the autumn term now upon us, those seaside picnics and afternoons spent paddling in the shallows of cool streams can seem like distant memories. Bottling that feeling of carefree days spent outdoors in a Blyton-like idyll should sustain us through the colder months ahead, but I believe the outdoors has a crucial part to play, no matter what time of year it is.
Outdoor learning isn’t just about children getting fresh air and exercise in between lessons. Nature ignites passion, inspiration, curiosity and purpose, and it plays a crucial role in the cognitive, emotional and physical development of children.
Dr Amanda Lloyd, a leading researcher and advocate of outdoor learning says of children who have taken their curriculum into the outdoors: “Their oral skills and vocabulary improved because they weren’t scared to practise them in an informal environment.”
“They were more focused, more engaged and on task because it had real-world meaning.” Incorporating mindfulness into the school day and even teaching meditation can also improve children’s attention spans, help them to control their emotions and make more balanced decisions, in class and on a sports field.
Working together outdoors, children are able to put their own ideas into practise. It takes them from the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of more directed, classroom learning to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of independent, child-led learning – the best kind!
Critical life skills such as leadership, teamwork, resilience, good judgement and persistence can all be developed outdoors, with much evidence to show that they enhance performance back in the classroom.
Geographers can experiment with half drainpipes, pebbles and water to understand riverbed formations, and collaborative boat-building projects can help young scientists understand Archimedes’s principles of displacement.
Den builders in Forest School learn the hard way, that nature and gravity can ruin a seemingly brilliant design for an outdoor shelter. However, through trial and error, the solution is out there – and children are motivated to find it.
In 2012, a group of London schools banded together to launch the Empty Classroom Day initiative, and by 2015, there were 15 countries and more than 600 schools involved. In 2016 they joined forces with Project Dirt in what is now a global bi-annual event, with more than 2.3million children taking part in a day to celebrate outdoor learning and play.
This inspired us at Marlborough House. A colourful array of wigwams and bell tents gave our grounds a somewhat festival feel, and proved irresistible locations for storytelling and group discussions. Forest Art Club painted and hid rocks for a treasure hunt and in doing so, inspired a novel Year Eight revision game! A long way from textbooks and the silent reflection on a year of study.
From creating the life cycle of a plant using natural materials, to using a handmade Groma to mark out a Roman road; learning opportunities are all around us and shouldn’t be confined to the classroom after summer.
In the words of much-loved children’s author, Michael Morpurgo, “It’s the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.” Come on kids, let’s go outside!