Covid-19: Ideas for taking learning outside this autumn

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

During the pandemic, many schools have become more adept at making the most of their outside spaces. How can we ensure that teaching outdoors continues to feature in our planning? Suzanne O’Connell gets some tips from headteacher Emma Barker and the charity Learning through Landscapes


For some schools, making the most of their outside spaces has always been a priority. For others, their importance was highlighted as the pandemic struck and the role of ventilation and staying outdoors as part of measures to prevent the spread of Covid became clear. Schools quickly became more creative about how to make the best use of their playgrounds, wild areas and awnings.

Now, as the pandemic rumbles on, many schools will be trying to use their outdoor spaces as much as possible this coming term. So how do we go about building in a proactive and purposeful use of outside areas?

As much as anything it is down to attitude. Mary Jackson is head of education and communities at the charity Learning through Landscapes. She has a clear message for schools who are reflecting on their outdoor learning: it does not have to be complicated.

She explained: “Sometimes the simplest approaches can work best. For example, you can take your children out and ask them to pick up a leaf. What adjectives can they think of looking at the leaf? It could be reference to texture, colours, shape.”

This article also includes advice from Emma Barker, the headteacher at Pawlett Primary School Academy (part of the Priory Learning Trust) in Somerset, a small rural school with mixed-age classes. Her commitment to outside learning was already established when she was appointed to Pawlett. She explained: “I had been involved at my previous school in outdoor learning and felt that it had a direct impact on attitudes to learning – making it ‘sticky’. I’d seen first-hand the enthusiasm and level of engagement that learning outside encourages.”


Start with the principles

Ms Jackson recommends starting with your principles. Learning through Landscapes states that outdoor learning and play should:

  • Be available and accessible for every child.
  • Be fully integrated into a school’s curriculum.
  • Include high quality outdoor play.

The whole of the school’s grounds should be regarded as an outdoor classroom and designed with the future in mind.

Ms Jackson continued: “Simple things can work well. You don’t need lots of equipment. Teachers need to think, ‘what am I teaching – what ways can I do this outdoors?’ Sometimes they worry that they are not qualified enough to teach outside and that they need to be specially trained, but you don’t.”

Having said that, Learning through Landscapes does offer training to schools and this was something that Ms Barker decided to provide for her staff. They applied for a grant from the charity and found that the training gave them lots of practical ideas.

She explained: “We went back to basics and I gave the staff a copy of the national curriculum and asked them to look at what aspects of it were best suited to being taught outside.”

The first lockdown in March 2020 gave Ms Barker additional time to do some background reading and to feel sure from her research about the impact that outdoor learning can have.

Now, the timetable from this September includes one hour a week outside for all students and this is in addition to the time allocated to their Forest School.


Into practice

Before establishing the timetable, Ms Barker and her staff did some trial runs: “We wanted feedback from the children – we got it and from parents too. It isn’t that learning outdoors is necessarily better than learning indoors, it’s just a different way of delivering things. Some aspects of the curriculum are definitely better taught inside and others outside.”

For Ms Barker, the logistics of planning in their outdoor learning time had to be managed alongside teaching a mixed year 4, 5 and 6 class. Ms Barker teaches two days a week with the help of a teaching assistant: “I took the outdoor learning session as an opportunity to focus on the objectives of the actual year group for the children. Although our mixed- age structure does work I also think it is important to spend time on the specific year objectives.”

“Weather is no barrier” is an important message from both Ms Barker and Ms Jackson. If outdoor learning is to be incorporated into your planning it cannot be dependent on a fine day.

“We are prepared for whatever the weather brings,” explained Ms Barker. “We have sets of waterproof trousers and wellingtons. Children in Finland still go outside and so can we!”

For Ms Jackson, the move to a greater commitment to outdoor learning can be a gradual one: “Look at your scheme of work – it can be something as simple as collecting data on how far children can throw a ball. It can be reinforcing what you’re learning elsewhere and using a different environment to motivate and avoid the feeling of repetition. Maths and creative writing particularly lend themselves to this.”

Ms Barker found the Learning through Landscapes training to be an eye-opener to the many possibilities out there. For example, during the training a toy owl was used to demonstrate what happens when a “corridor” is cut in a field or forest. “It clearly showed the impact of building or extending the corridor area on what the owl was able to do – having to fly higher to get to the other side.”


Overcoming potential barriers

Sometimes the issue of time is raised as a barrier to taking learning outside. This need not cause a problem. For example, you can run your outdoor session following on from break time so that no time is lost in coming into school and going back out again.
Issues of controlling students can often be raised during discussion about outdoor learning.

Ms Jackson advised: “You need to create your signals and confirm boundaries. You can practise this together. Decide – where do you gather? Where are the parameters for where pupils are allowed? What is the signal for them to come back together? You might use a whistle or something similar.”

Lack of funds can also act as an impediment. Ms Barker advised: “Start small and with quick wins. Invest in some basic equipment – it doesn’t have to cost much – some waterproof trousers, clipboards, a tarpaulin. You can make use of the Sports Premium to support the investment or apply for a grant like we did.”

On the Learning through Landscapes website there is information about the local schools’ nature grant which can entitle you to £500 worth of equipment along with training. Learning through Landscapes also offers free online training for schools and their staff.

Money can be available too from your local community. Better use of outdoor space is a popular money-raising objective and you might find that a local supermarket or other local business is prepared to sponsor you. Check-out your parents’ employers to find out whether there is someone who could approach them for you. Getting children to write letters of request can work particularly well.

Pawlett Primary is the ideal environment for outdoor learning with a huge field, a large forest school area and with each class having its own outdoor space. With such rich resources it would be a tragedy not to make the most of it. Ms Jackson is emphatic, however, that you do not have to be blessed with a rural setting to make outdoor learning work. For example, a growing area need not be large, as long as you can grow something. With a creative outlook you can change the focus of even a small area.

“Gathering spaces” are important. You want these to be areas ideally away from where they might disturb other classes. You can experiment with the seating arrangements first – straw bales are a great way of doing this and can easily be moved: “Try things out before you make them permanent,” Ms Jackson added.

Storage areas and kit bags can all make the process of moving from inside to outside easier. “You don’t want to have to carry items in and out,” says Ms Jackson. “A kit bag for teachers is useful, again so that everything is in one place and accessible.”


Next steps

“We are always looking for our next step,” explained Ms Barker. One of these was the creation of a “Learning Lodge” which is an outdoor classroom built for the purpose of enhancing the delivery of outdoor learning. It has taken time to develop but now, 12 months on, they are very proud of the additional opportunities it provides.

Ms Barker is also aiming to streamline their planning to ensure that teachers are as well supported as possible: “I’d also like to spend more time developing our outdoor learning blog,” she added. “And I’m considering the possibility of introducing a week during the year when the whole school engages in outdoor learning.”

With their outdoor learning firmly embedded and any initial anxieties overcome, Ms Barker has received positive comments from her staff as well as her children and their parents: “It’s not only the pupils but the adults too who have been invigorated by being outside. It’s made such a difference.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.


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