Outdoor learning on a shoestring

Written by: HTU | Published:

Outdoor learning is recognised as a vital part of primary school life for pupils, but how can schools deliver these experiences while also keeping the costs down? Fiona Aubrey-Smith hears from two schools.

An analysis of the last thousand primary schools to have been inspected by Ofsted shows two very important trends. First that the area most commonly identified for improvement (in over half of all schools inspected) is teaching. Second, that the most common reason that a school is not yet good or outstanding centres upon children’s engagement levels.  

Developing strategies for improving teaching and learning and increasing children’s engagement is not easy and many schools have been seeking inspiration for new ideas and fresh approaches. 

One of the common themes across the country at the moment is about developing outdoor learning – ranging from forest schools to farms, and from sensory to sandpit. Here, two members of SSAT’s Primary Network share some practical ideas for developing outdoor learning on a budget. 

Case study

Gill Ellis, St Andrew’s CE VA Primary School, Bury

Our outdoor learning development was a vital part of our planned strategy for raising attainment outcomes. 

In the summer of 2012 we thus began to develop a careful plan which targeted specific children in our school. Our focus was very much on our continuous provision across the curriculum, and how best we could develop quality enabling environments both indoors and outdoors. We were also keen to involve a range of staff in the journey, beyond teaching staff and leadership teams. 

Our first step was to redefine our school outside space, establishing security and boundaries so that we were portraying a clear and improved place where expectations for learning could be clearly rooted.

So, how does the outside space that children work within infer an expectation of pro-active learning? Well, once we had clear learning spaces identified and established, we undertook a thorough audit of what resources we already had available to us. We used guidance and information from a range of people familiar with outdoor learning and landscapes and immersed ourselves in thinking about key questions and ideas raised from within these. 

We then reflected carefully on what other people had done and drew these ideas together to plan the space, prioritising what we could achieve in the short and longer term. It was important to us to establish some initial successes so that the children, staff and families could see how our outside space would develop over time. 

Some of these initial actions were simple things such as our school caretaker erecting guttering and an outdoor tap. These simple actions opened up a vast range of opportunities that we could then use across the curriculum. We also held a Ground Force Day where we built a sand-based learning area and a mud kitchen.

We wanted to create a sense of sensory nature and so we sought help locally to re-bark the floor of our outside area and to add tree stumps for seating and interest areas. 

Planning how we would maintain and sustain our outdoor learning space was as important aspect. We obtained a large shed and an abundance of storage boxes for the areas so that we could use these throughout continuous provision. None of our provision has been budget-breaking. For example: guttering £30, an outdoor tap £20, a teepee made with bamboo canes £15, a mud kitchen £20, and sink tyres which were free!

We have repurposed existing resources such as crates, an old classroom table, a PE trolley and chalkboards, and we also find objects for £1 each week that facilitate learning in each of the areas, such as jugs and baking trays, to complement more complex resources that are more expensive to source, such as magnifying glasses. 

Case study

Cath Lavelle, Barlow Hall Primary School

Outdoor learning does not depend on expensive landscaping projects or costly equipment. We have recently built a mud kitchen in our outdoor area and just purchased waterproof clothing and wellies for the children to keep them clean (ish!) and dry.

The children mix their own mud from clean topsoil and water and we enhance it with natural materials that the children bring in or that we find around the school, such as pine cones, leaves, woodchip, petals etc. 

The parents helped us by donating wooden and metal bowls, pans and utensils and one of the teacher’s dads built the tables and frames. The children use it every day and it is always a busy but calm place to be. The children have become independent at fetching their own wellies and getting themselves dressed in waterproofs. It is a great place to promote sharing and collaboration and for imaginative play and speaking and listening. 

Limited spaces

Across SSAT’s Primary Network, many schools are currently working on or thinking about developing their outdoor learning provision. One of the questions that often arises in conversation is from our member schools who are within city centres or who have limited outside spaces. We have seen some very creative solutions to these challenges – ranging from sophisticated roof classrooms in new build schools, to window box vegetable patches in multi-floor schools. It’s entirely possible for all children to benefit from the curriculum opportunities that outdoor learning offers without depending on access to outdoor space.

Other approaches that our schools talk about is bringing nature inside the building; for example recreating everyday forest floor objects such as twigs, leaves and soil, inside the role play area. Children put wellies and overalls on inside the classroom just the same as they would do if going outdoors, and this is particularly good for children from low income families who might not otherwise have their own wellies – a couple of pairs of differently sized wellies ensure that all children have equal access (hunt in your lost-property box, there are bound to be a few). 

This kind of sensory experience awakens children to a vocabulary and sense of discovery that lends itself to targeted questioning and knowledge development encompassing science, geography, art, music and maths, as well as the more obvious literary connections. 

Another benefit that children in more rurally located schools have is to be able to lie under trees en masse to read, write or draw. Those with schools fortunate enough to have such landscapes will know what a profound impact this can have on children’s imaginations and creativity, particularly in their writing.

A number of schools have used inside spaces to recreate this – oversize indoor plants adjacent to library skylights, or trellis partitions covered in climbers for example, create a sense of scale, mottled light amid the leaves and particularly when near to a window breeze can strike the imagination within any classroom. 

It is important to give children the opportunity to connect with nature regularly, not just on day trips or for those lucky enough to benefit from family who go on walks or play outdoors. Bringing natural fabrics – bark, wood, willow and moss – into outside learning areas provides a sense of inclusion for those children who do not regularly get the opportunity to open their senses to the sight, smell and texture of nature.

Further information

Schools featured in this article are members of SSAT’s Primary Network. Find out more by visiting www.ssatuk.co.uk or join one of the SSAT’s free Speed Learning twilights to discover ideas from 11 different classroom teachers each session, visit www.ssatuk.co.uk/speedlearning. Find out if your school is a winner in SSAT’s Educational Outcomes Awards at www.ssatuk.co.uk/ eo2013.

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