Ideas for outdoor learning this spring

Written by: Janet Anderson | Published:
Out and about: The Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr Garden in Harrogate

Spring is on its way, but we need not wait for warmer days to get our pupils outside, especially given the impact of outdoor learning on wellbeing and happiness. Janet Anderson offers some practical tips for outdoor activities in primary schools

There has been much research on the wellbeing benefits of getting out into green spaces and gardens and the impact this has on school-aged children.

The People and Nature survey undertaken by Natural England (2022) demonstrates the positive role of nature in supporting children’s wellbeing, with 85% of the children in the April 2022 update agreeing that being in nature made them very happy.

It is increasingly recognised that engagement with the natural environment has wide-ranging physical, emotional, social, and cognitive benefits for individuals of all age groups. The impact on wellbeing for children spending time outside was also highlighted in the survey above, where 40% of adults agreed that their child seems happier when they have spent time outside.

Elsewhere, The Wildlife Trusts commissioned a study by the UCL Institute of Education to evaluate the impact that experiencing nature has upon children (Sheldrake et al, 2019). The study focused on more than 450 primary school children and the effects of outdoor educational activities on their wellbeing, making it one of the largest studies into the effects of outdoor activities on children’s wellbeing and views about nature.

Overall, the research revealed that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature: the children showed an increase in their personal wellbeing and health over time, and they showed an increase in nature connection and demonstrated high levels of enjoyment.

What was interesting to see from the study was that these types of outdoor and nature activities had benefits that fell into two camps.

First, those that fall under wider personal and social benefits:

  • After their activities 84% of children felt that they were capable of doing new things when they tried.
  • 79% of children reported feeling more confident in themselves.
  • 81% noted that their time in nature “made me feel calm and relaxed”.

Second, the children also gained educational benefits:

  • 79% felt that their experience could help their school work.
  • 81% agreed that they had better relationships with their teachers.
  • 79% reported better relationships with their class mates.

What is out there for you to do with your pupils

We recently put together a lesson for the Tes Live Lesson series which was filmed in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Harlow Carr Garden, where I am the horticultural education officer. The lesson explores the wide variety of plants and how they are adapted to suit their environment. The lesson plans to accompany it are really helpful and still available (see further information).

The lesson takes the children on an exciting journey of discovery by getting up close to the plants in two completely different environments in the garden: alpine and sub-tropical. It falls under the key stage 2 science curriculum, so as well as giving students an opportunity to get out and explore, it covers an important curriculum topic too.

As we wait for spring to arrive, there are many activities that you can do during the cold weather to get your pupils engaging with nature, no matter what your school surroundings. Here are a few ideas:

  • Search for signs of new growth like sprouting spring bulbs and tree buds about to burst. Children will be amazed at the differences between buds when they look up close. They could draw them or use similes and metaphors to describe them, e.g. the black bud of an ash is like a hoof print in the mud.
  • Set a maths measuring challenge. Take the children outside to make observations and estimate which objects they think fall within defined size categories before they then measure the object accurately to check how close their estimates were.
  • Create a trail of clues around the school grounds so that children must solve each clue to lead them to the next. Or challenge the students to design these for each other. The clues could relate to man-made and/or natural items with questions covering different areas of the curriculum (a great way of revising).
  • Play a sustainability sorting game. Put hoops on the playground labelled as “re-use”, “recycle”, “compost”. Give the children a variety of different objects to categorise.
  • Make birdfeeders using natural materials like pinecones covered in vegetable fat and seeds, or apples tied with twine. Put them up where you can see them and count how many birds visit. If you can identify each type, keep a tally chart of the results.
  • This is a great time to sow sweet peas in deep pots easily made from scrap paper. Keep them on a sunny windowsill and plant them outside when the risk of frost has gone (note that sweet peas are poisonous but only if eaten in large quantities).
  • Use your environment for the start of a creative writing project. Look for clues and collect adjectives for descriptive writing and perhaps let the plants and creatures inspire the personalities of the characters in the story.

Furthermore, when planning your teaching and learning activities, ask yourself if they can be done outside. Perhaps start a collection of spare wellies and raincoats so you can get your class out whatever the weather and check the weather forecast by signing up to Met Office alerts.

Of course, it is best to have a back-up plan just in case and it is also a good idea to get pupils to create and agree to class expectations for working outdoors just as you would inside the classroom.

Access to outdoor spaces

We know that many children do not have access to their own outdoor spaces, so it makes it even more important to try to make this happen in the school environment.

In a recent report, the Office for National Statistics (2020) highlighted that one in eight households do not have access to a garden or shared outdoor space in the UK, which rises to one in five in some urban areas. And the Fields in Trust Green Space Index shows that 2.8 million people in the UK are not living within a 10-minute walk of green space.

UNESCO’s recent discussion paper – Necessity of urban green space for children’s optimal development (Sugar, 2021) – makes three very salient points in its summary: first, that a simple walk in the park can significantly improve a child’s ability to concentrate, second that green views out of school windows correlate with improved academic performance, and third that children who grow up in greener neighbourhoods are often less depressed, less stressed, and generally healthier and happier.

So, with all this in mind, it is important that as school leaders, teachers, and educators we do our very best to bring nature to our pupils in a variety of ways and whenever possible.

  • Janet Anderson is horticultural education officer at the Royal Horticultural Garden’s Harlow Carr site in Harrogate, where the Tes Live Lesson on plant adaptation and environments was filmed. Visit

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