Outdoor education can be simply defined as the experience of learning in, for, or about the outdoors. The term ‘outdoor education’, however, is used broadly to refer to a range of organized activities that take place in a variety of ways utilising outdoor environments. There has been a lot of interest and research regarding outdoor learning recently. Having outdoor lessons has become commonplace in most schools and we wanted to look more deeply at the reasons why this is happening and how learning outcomes are affected.
Research is demonstrating that playing and learning outside helps children to understand and respect nature, the environment and the interdependence of humans, animals, plants, and lifecycles. The outdoor environment offers space, natural light and fresh air and is particularly important to those children who learn best through active movement. Keeping children on task in the classroom is always a challenge, especially when the weather is bright outside and the subject being taught demands concentration. But bringing lessons down to practical activities enables those potentially laborious subjects to suddenly become enjoyable and engaging – learning outdoors actually improves a child’s concentration. When absorbed in an activity, their minds are entirely focused on what they are doing, rather than the constant distractions and fidgeting that occurs when children are sitting indoors for lengths of time. Put simply, learning outcomes are improved when the classroom environment shifts. This improvement is quite dramatic when classes are held outdoors if possible. Many researchers contribute the increase in performance to increased relevance and hands-on experience of learning outdoors.
Learning outdoors is more active and increases students’ physical, mental and social health. Outdoor learning and access to nature also decreases stress levels of students, (and teachers!). By heading outdoors with teaching, you will find that opportunities arise to make understanding concepts real and relevant by putting them into a more realistic context. Many concepts, which seem too difficult to get a grasp of in the classroom, are a lot easier to understand when they’re presented in context and can easily be shown by practical example. Children are more engaged and motivated, putting them in the right frame of mind to understand, learn and ‘receive’ more information.
When you take learning outside, children’s minds are free to explore, and you often achieve some very creative results no matter what subject you are teaching. This freedom and allowance for thought also encourages a mind-set ready for absorbing information. We all know that children learn more when they are happy and engaged. And being happy and engaged involves the active use of imagination, so it’s no wonder then that children learn so much through play.
Experimenting is also a fantastic way to learn – very young children learn a huge amount of scientific lessons, such as volume and textures, by simple sand and water play, whilst older children will enjoy researching and learning about nature and habitats. If you’re able to build outside play and learning into your curriculum to engage and motivate pupils to learn, you’ll inevitably find that children are more motivated to really hit the ground running for lessons because they know that something that they find fun is about to happen. You will also find that the prospect of learning outdoors is something that the whole class looks forward to, making them more attentive when the indoor classroom sessions do take place. Whilst learning beyond the classroom certainly involves strict behaviour monitoring, it can often mean a general improvement in behaviour – yet another great consequence of children being happy, engaged and motivated. There are not many children who are likely to play up if the outcome is that the whole class must go back indoors, or that they might not get to go out next time.
We can always make learning more engaging. By taking some simple core lessons outside, we can really change children’s perceptions about their own abilities. For example, maths is definitely a subject that kids can often be heard to state “I’m hopeless at maths” or “I hate maths”. So, let’s say we do take maths outside – children could estimate how long it would take to run, hop and skip a certain distance. They can record the results and display them back in the classroom. Or create graphs showing the contrasts. Simple activities like these allow children to develop a variety of skills, from analytical skills such as prediction to practical skills, such as measuring a distance. In addition, they experience and understand the use of maths in everyday life in a practical, hands-on way. An Outdoor Classroom or a canopy makes an ideal sheltered space for these sorts of activities.
Learning outside the classroom doesn’t just mean wandering around the school grounds, though this is a great place to start. Learning outside can give you a great opportunity to teach your pupils about the environment, see nature at close quarters and learn about your local area. This is an important part of developing them as responsible citizens that can be difficult to convey in the classroom. For good health, we all know that getting outdoors provides a more active and healthier environment than sitting in the classroom. Even if you’re just going to work a few feet from the confines of your classroom, well directed outdoor learning opportunities can offer a great opportunity for fresh air and exercise. Even pupils who are not performers in PE can usually be tempted by a fun or imaginative learning game, without the pressure of needing to ‘win’.
One of the key benefits of learning outside is the available resources. No matter how tight your school’s budget, if you have a good imagination, you’ll be able to develop meaningful learning opportunities for your children that will stick with them. If your outside space needs adapting to make those outdoor lessons possible, Greenline can help. We have worked with many schools to make outdoor lessons possible. There are so many options to improve your use of available outdoor spaces in your school which may be underutilised, even a small corner can become a successful and productive outdoor classroom.
Author: Stephanie Plane