Planning and integrating outdoor lessons and learning

Written by: Matthew Leach | Published:
Out and about: Pupils at Hyrstmount Junior School enjoy at least one 55-minute lesson outdoors every week (images: supplied)

Outdoor learning can present many challenges for curriculum and lesson-planning, but it can be worth the effort. Headteacher Matthew Leach talks about his school’s focus on taking teaching outdoors and how it has helped improve outcomes


Hyrstmount is a three-form entry junior school in Batley, Yorkshire. We have been working to build confidence among teaching staff to deliver lessons outdoors. This has been a really valuable and important journey for us, and we can now shout about the results.

In 2016, we began working to plan and integrate outdoor lessons. We wanted to ensure that the lessons dovetailed with the curriculum and that the lessons complemented and consolidated children’s learning each term, helping them to progress.


Getting pupils learning outside

We worked with Grow to School, a not-for-profit outdoor learning provider, to develop this over the course of a year.

If the children needed extra support with a subject or skill, such as comprehension, or around specific topics where they had been struggling, we would aim to remodel the lessons so that they could be taken outdoors.

The lessons are developed so that learning outdoors increases children’s activity and gets them out of their chairs and moving.

Every child is offered at least one timetabled lesson of 55 minutes outside a week, in either the forest, pond, garden or other areas of the school grounds. All lessons correspond directly with the work being done in class and extend the children’s knowledge of taught subjects.

For example, year 3 pupils were struggling to learn the mountains of the UK. So, a lesson was devised combining myths and legends of the mountains and countries of the UK. The children had to build or draw one of the four mountains using natural materials. Each team then created an advert to sell their mountain to a giant who was looking for a new home.

The range of subjects that can be taught outside is as wide as those taught inside. Grow to School’s expertise has helped us to design an outdoor learning curriculum that covers all subjects. It is hard to pick a favourite lesson, but children love “Thorsday Thursday” when all year 4 pupils spend a day outside for their Viking topic.

Perhaps the most talked about lesson, at least from what I hear from pupils and families, is when the children make a working model of the digestive system and compare their results with the Bristol Stool Chart!

Another good memory I have is when year 5 learnt about the Second World War. They started the topic by being parachuted into enemy territory, setting up camp, and deciphered coded messages. The weather that year was glorious and over the weeks they dug for victory, created and tested bomb shelters using water balloons as bombs, and finished the term celebrating VE Day outside, complete with bunting, flags cakes and even Churchill (played by me) reading his VE Day speech.

To complement Thorsday Thursday, we are currently planning more regular events, including a Stone Age Day for year 3, a Victorian Day for year 5, and an Ancient Greek day for year 6.

These days have all the excitement of a school trip, and the children seem to love working in year groups as opposed to classes, enjoying the thrill of being outside all day. It is also considerably cheaper and easier to organise than taking three classes off site!


Overcoming barriers

There was some reluctance from staff to work outside in the early stages due to perceived risks or inclement weather, as well as a lack of confidence in both delivering lessons outside and the results they might yield.

However, after outdoor learning was timetabled, staff became used to the routine of going outdoors once a week.

When learning outdoors, everyone is working towards the same goal, so the children get a greater sense of community and team-work. No-one has to be “the best” and the focus is on the team. Pupils celebrate each other’s work more, which improves self-esteem, confidence and awareness.

It provides the opportunity for all children to shine. Often “less academic” children display leadership skills and new-found confidence as they are more comfortable with the hands-on learning and will step forward.

The sessions help to solidify knowledge. They give children another way to take in information and this practical, doing approach while learning helps them to retain things.

We have had many successes along the way, but one boy has always stood out as outdoor learning really turned his school life around. In year 3 he struggled to concentrate and would at times demonstrate challenging behaviour in and outside the classroom.

About halfway through year 3, during an outdoor learning lesson on the Romans, everything changed. He spent the whole lesson quietly focused on creating a timeline of the Roman Empire, and from that defining moment he never looked back.

While classroom activities and lessons still proved challenging, outside he shone. He has since learnt how to lead a team, how to delegate, and how to share. He would often hop to different teams to help support peers who were struggling and the quality of the work he produced was outstanding.

When he left Hyrstmount last year, we know he left with the knowledge that despite his struggles academically, he had pride in his abilities as a leader, a team player his and outdoor skills.


Wet weather

Hyrstmount is based in Yorkshire and is no stranger to wet weather. One of the first purchases schools often make when preparing for outdoor learning is wet weather clothing for children.

Of course, the reality is that once you have dressed 30 children in the appropriate clothing, either the sun has come out or there are only five minutes left of the lesson!

However, we find that it is more likely to be the teacher who hates wet weather rather than the children. So, ensure teachers have decent warm coats and wellies. Unless it is really chucking it down, half an hour outside allows for a decent, if short, lesson and no-one will get too wet or cold.

Sending out letters with requests for old wellies and waterproof coats has helped us to build-up our supply of wet weather clothing for those children who do not come to school appropriately dressed. And we ask children to bring spare socks for wellies in winter.


Outdoor space and resources

There can be barriers to taking a class of young children outdoors. As well as the unpredictable weather, a lot of schools will say that they haven’t got the outdoor space. Others are concerned about keeping the class on track and how they will teach a lesson outdoors without it becoming disrupted.

At Hyrstmount, we do have outdoor space, but you don’t have to have a huge, green, planted area. Regardless of space, we have found that having a good bank of resources that can be used outdoors to support your lessons really helps.

Resources that we use regularly include natural materials – stones, sticks, acorns, seeds, grass, dandelions, daisies, leaves etc – as well as things like bamboo canes, guttering, balls, chalk, shower curtains, string, and tarpaulins!

Ask at local DIY shops and building companies for old pieces of wood, timber and scaffolding boards. Tyres are also easy and free to get hold of (local garages). We also re-use containers like milk bottles and yoghurt pots.

For cheap storage, we have a plastic greenhouse in a sheltered spot – it is a waterproof, shelved alternative to a shed and after five years is still going strong. We also have a cheap tarpaulin up to give cover from the rain and re-use old classroom tables for outdoor learning.

We also use mini-whiteboards to aide teaching and, of course, having laminated sheets is a must!

The cost of resources or buying in outdoor lessons may feel prohibitive but remember that some things can be legitimately purchased using your PE and Sport Premium. That is how we have covered the costs of the Grow to School lesson bank.


Fulfilling the school’s vision

Hyrstmount has recently been inspected by Ofsted and was judged to be good overall with outstanding personal development. Ofsted recognised that leaders and staff provide a range of opportunities for pupils and enhance the curriculum. We as a school are acknowledging the role that regular outdoor learning plays in supporting and enhancing the school curriculum.

The school has now successfully embedded the practice of teaching outside, seeing benefits not only in children’s learning and attainment but also in the development of social skills and the professional development of teachers.

  • Matthew Leach is headteacher at Hyrstmount Junior School in Batley, Yorkshire.


Further information & resources

  • Grow to School is not-for-profit and supports schools to deliver outdoor learning across all key stages with whole classes or small groups, including curriculum-based sessions and support for how to use your school’s outdoor space. It has been awarded the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom’s Quality Badge. Visit www.growtoschool.co.uk


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