Take teaching outside - 13 May 2011


Outdoor play and learning is regarded as more and more important for well-rounded, happy children. Here Elizabeth Hudson, from environmental charity BTCV, discusses the work they do and looks at ways primary schools can get involved


It is a bright, fresh morning in Stourton, three miles from Leeds city centre, and a group of lively seven and eight-year-olds have just arrived at BTCV’s environmental education centre, Skelton Grange, ready to start their school day. Today though, there will be no desks or even pens and paper – Skelton Grange does not do that kind of learning.

After introductions and a very active version of “paper, scissors, stone” to help burn off some of the excitement at being somewhere different, it is time for boots and coats on before heading outside for lessons to begin. On the walk to the “classroom” (in this case, a small area of woodland on the centre’s six acre site), some of the children wave and say hello to Harold, the impressive beech tree they got to know when they visited last year. Things that happen here seem to stick in young minds.

This does not look much like a typical primary school day and as the day goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that it is not. Whether it is digging up soil and inspecting it before coming up with a soil “recipe”, hunting for minibeasts under logs and stones, or exploring the compost bin, the pupils are learning while having lots of fun outdoors, and they are loving it.

Across the UK, the environmental charity BTCV has been championing children’s rights to green space and the benefits of outdoor education for decades. In 2010 alone, BTCV gave 21,000 children from all corners of Britain the opportunity to get close to nature, providing them with practical knowledge and experience of the natural environment through various projects and environmental schemes.

Its flagship educational facility, Skelton Grange, was set up in partnership with Leeds City Council and National Grid to provide local children with access to the natural world and all the benefits of learning outside. Since opening in 1992, the award winning environmental education centre has given around 90,000 children the opportunity to experience and enjoy outdoor life.

Through a combination of education days, play schemes, a wildlife club and a Wild in the Woods programme, visiting children can step away from computers and textbooks to develop an understanding and appreciation of their environment, and how they can help in safeguarding its future.

While field trips may once have been seen as an add-on or extra-curricular activity, the benefits of places like Skelton Grange and outdoor learning go far beyond this. In a report published earlier this year the Association for Science Education (ASE) called for increases in outdoor teaching, highlighting the benefits of learning science outside in the natural environment, including teamwork, motivation and its potential to encourage more pupils to continue scientific studies.

Learning outdoors does not need to be limited to the sciences either. There now seems to be recognition of the advantages of using nature on an everyday basis as a way of bringing all areas of the curriculum alive.

At Skelton Grange, using the outdoors as a classroom to help teach everything from maths and science to art and music is a tried and tested teaching method. While year 3 pupils might spend an education day focusing on minibeasts, tasks involving imagination and creativity are all incorporated into the day with children enjoying activities such as making their own creepy crawly models out of “junk”.

Caroline Crossley, project manager at Skelton Grange, is sure of the benefits of getting children outside the classroom. She explains: “Many of the children who come to Skelton Grange have very little experience of life outdoors. But when we take them out of their familiar urban surroundings, we’re often amazed by the positive effect a bit of time spent outside learning about the natural environment can have.

“This isn’t just about discovering how the natural world works but also using nature as a tool for children to learn more about themselves. Society is only just beginning to grasp exactly how important outdoor play and learning is for well-rounded, happy children. At BTCV, we’re providing proof of that day after day.”

With a survey published early last year showing that three out of 10 children had not been on a country walk in the last year, one in five had never climbed a tree and nearly a fifth did not know that a dock leaf can soothe a nettle sting, it is clear many children in the UK are not getting the benefits of the great outdoors outside of school.

In Scandinavia though, learning outside is now part of the mainstream. The well established Forest Schools scheme, which began in Denmark, is all about young people having stimulating, positive experiences in a woodland environment; some Scandinavian primary school pupils barely make it into a traditional classroom at all now.

Activities might include following treasure trails, making objects from natural resources found in the woods, fire lighting and cooking. Through these activities, children learn how to handle risk, and to use their own initiative to solve problems. Most sessions also incorporate team games and challenges, as well as music and environmental art, helping to develop social and emotional skills. Forest School schemes have been found to be highly successful in teaching and engaging more challenging pupils, including those with attention deficit disorders such as ADHD.

While teaching outside full-time may be going a step too far in the UK, for Ofsted at least, schools are now finding simple ways of incorporating outdoor education into the day-to-day curriculum and without spending pots of cash.

Mark McKenna, a BTCV project officer, has worked with lots of schools to improve their outdoor areas. He says: “Creating a food growing area is a great way to introduce children to life outdoors, as well as having the added benefit of learning about healthy eating and providing some exercise. Even schools with very little outdoor space can grow climbers like beans up an existing fence or put up a few pots and baskets to grow things like strawberries and lettuces. Garages often give away old tyres, which make superb planters and can be painted up by pupils to look more attractive.”

For schools with a bit more space and wanting to do something more elaborate, BTCV teams have helped to build everything from full-sized allotments to outdoor classrooms complete with willow structures, seating and shelters.

A couple of examples from last year include planting trees and bluebells to improve a small area of woodland for a primary school in Richmond, London, and turning a litter-strewn and neglected site into a fully functioning outdoor classroom ready for a Forest Schools programme in Llanhilleth, Wales.

As BTCV’s manpower is provided by local volunteers, costs are kept down and it can lead to the whole community getting involved. Parents, grandparents and friends often turn up in their wellies to help out meaning links between school and home get strengthened.

There can even be opportunities for wider community involvement. At the Rainbow Centre, a school for children with cerebral palsy in Hampshire, BTCV worked with a group of volunteers from RBS to improve and develop a sensory garden. By tapping into employee volunteer schemes, schools can often get work done that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Volunteer organisations such as BTCV can also prove invaluable in terms of getting programmes started or helping to run schemes, taking the pressure off teachers. As the aforementioned report by ASE recognised, many teachers simply do not have the experience or training to feel comfortable taking teaching outdoors.

In Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, London, BTCV staff run school sessions for primary and secondary schools two days a week in term-time and now get fully booked a year ahead for the spring and summer terms. The project means pupils living in London get the opportunity to learn outside, even if their own school does not have the resources or expertise on-site.

Likewise, at a project in a community garden in Adamsdown, Cardiff, BTCV has been working with pupils from three local primary schools to learn about growing their own food and where food comes from. Many of the pupils have only recently arrived in the UK and they have limited English language skills but teachers have noticed improvements as a result of the project – the children are becoming more confident and the practical hands on approach is helping to improve their language skills.

Back in Skelton, the day is winding up but the children are going home tired, happy and with plenty of new knowledge and skills to carry over into their classroom work.

As centre manager Ms Crossley adds: “City life means kids are getting fewer opportunities to properly explore the outdoors these days so they don’t get the chance to push their own boundaries and learn what they are really capable of.

“Part of growing up is learning to understand and respect your surroundings – projects like ours are an excellent way of allowing children the freedom to do that in a safe and secure setting.”

In this age of computer games, the internet and digital TV, it is perhaps no surprise that more and more children are missing out on an outdoor education. But what BTCV proves is that, when presented with the opportunity, life outdoors is still something children benefit greatly from and, more importantly, enjoy.

• To discover more and find your local BTCV office, visit www.btcv.org.uk or call 01302 388883.