Rewild your pupils!

Written by: HTU | Published:

Outdoor education expert Chris Hupp explores the importance of rewilding students and bringing outdoor learning into the daily life of a school

Project Wild Thing is a campaign that actively encourages children to explore the outdoors and inspires them to connect with their surroundings, essentially “rewilding” our students. This ethos can be embedded within education, where rewilding students, means that they encounter “core wilderness areas” in their formative years. All students should explore the outdoors, seek adventure, gain a deep connectivity to nature and develop a sense of place. 

When children are indoors for long periods they can develop a disconnection with the world beyond the classroom. Making outdoor education an everyday element to schooling breaks down this disengagement. I have witnessed student motivation levels rise when outdoor learning becomes a core component of lesson activities, as students enjoy the exploration of their local surroundings. 

Learning should be made coherent and meaningful for students throughout the day, offering opportunities for student-led enquiry, enjoyment of learning, and cultivating global citizenship. 

The outdoor environment can have a significant impact on classroom learning by developing a whole range of skills that help students to become more successful learners. Children engage in activities that encourage perseverance, cooperation, empathy, creative thinking, and leadership – skills that are often difficult to cultivate inside the walls of the classroom.

School culture and classroom dynamics can change dramatically when teachers begin to understand that the outdoor environment can be its own classroom, with all the integrated and interconnected learning opportunities it provides. Within this type of learning culture, students feel more motivated and engage on a deeper level with their learning. Teachers have reported that pupils work together with greater ease once back within the classroom setting. Outdoor education encourages students to get their hands dirty and exposes them to the “core wilderness areas” which cultivates imagination, creative thinking and an inquiring mindset, so valued in today’s global work force. 

A storyteller and bushcraft practitioner (from WildWise Events) recently ran an induction day with our boarding students. The day comprised a variety of activities in the school’s woodland, which purposefully engaged students with each other and the natural environment. The group divided into “tribes”, which were challenged to build a shelter and a fire using basic materials, forage and devise a way to make food with only flour, and brew tea with woodland herbs. The day culminated with students sharing proverbs they had created to sum up their experiences and a discussion to highlight learning and the challenges they faced.

Through exploring the core wilderness areas, students enjoyed the adventure of making their own food, exploring their immediate outdoor surroundings, developing a deeper connection to their school campus and to each other. Each of these processes inspired and sustained team-work and empathy, personal reflection, and captivated learning, all of which helped the students integrate into the school community. 

For students to really benefit from outdoor education, the process must encompass more than, say, a week of outdoor pursuits in the Peak district. Although trips like these provide excellent opportunities for team-building and working collaboratively, to truly “rewild” students, the surrounding environment must become a regular natural setting for lessons and extra-curricular activities and not only during isolated special trips.

At my school, we continually work to make sure that grounds are accessible for teachers, by ensuring high health and safety standards so that they can be used on a spontaneous basis. For example, we have developed the TOM Tent, a giant teepee structure set in the school’s nature trail, which is used for outdoor classes. Students recently spent the night under its canopy watching wildlife and experimenting with other bushcraft activities, helping students to connect with their surroundings.

We have also laid a designated Woodland Nature Trail where we conduct “site stops”, a technique that can be used in a variety of subject lessons. Students will stop at a particular point along the trail and reflect on their surroundings, taking note on the wildlife and natural habitat. 

They then record their reflections and use this as inspiration for creative writing assignments in English lessons, for example, or write observational reports for science. Although access to a woodland area is, of course, especially useful, this technique can be used in the school playground, playing fields, a nearby park or further afield in the local community. 

Importantly, outdoor spaces can be embedded across the curriculum. For example, in lower school we have created the Magic Garden, a ground floor green space right outside a classroom. Students have used the garden in a range of subjects such as learning plants as part of language classes and working out soil volumes and seed ratios as part of maths.

Having specially prepared facilities is clearly an advantage, but even basic equipment and outdoor spaces can be used in a variety of lessons. A squared patio can soon become a graph or multiplication table and a tennis court, with the help of a football and tennis ball and a few willing volunteers, can be transformed into a model of the solar system. Students enjoy outdoor learning and as a result we have witnessed increased student participation and deeper engagement levels in class. Activities such as Duke of Edinburgh Awards or Scouting can also be a powerful tool in helping students to reconnect with their surroundings and the natural world. We also have a residential camp for our ninth graders based in Aberdovey in Wales with activities such as rock-climbing, navigating hills, kaykaking and gorge-scrambling. Through these outdoor adventures students develop a transferable skill-set, which includes teamwork, determination and leadership, which can then be used within future social and academic settings. 

Through learning with all the senses, muddying fingers and toes, students develop a greater connection with the natural world and an enquiring mindset, where they are naturally curious about their world. They become knowledgeable of ideas and issues that have local and global significance. An essential part of “rewilding” students is helping them to reconnect with their immediate surroundings through exploration of the natural world.

Rewilding for the future

Rewilding students means they gain a deeper connection with their natural environment, and incorporating outdoor education into the everyday classes increases student enjoyment, motivation and engagement. Students develop vital skills such as working collaboratively, communication, and an enquiring mind. Here are some tips:

  • Muster support from the school’s leadership by creating and sharing a vision of outdoor education in a creative way. Avoid PowerPoint presentations at all costs! Instead, remind them of how important the outdoors was in their own childhood by taking them outside and teaching them something new.
  • Don’t forget to mention all the research that supports the benefits of outdoor learning (increased student motivation and engagement, improved academic performance), along with the challenging, real-to-life, and truly interdisciplinary learning that can take place in outdoor environments.
  • Effective implementation of outdoor education means providing CPD opportunities for teachers. The challenge is finding or offering training that connects with teachers’ specific professional/personal interests or teaching areas.
  • Outdoor education is made more accessible to teachers by simplifying the risk-assessment process, providing clear procedures and expectations for health and safety, and removing as much red tape as possible.
  • Mapping the school grounds and outlining all the learning opportunities available is a key first step to generating interest and making connections to the curriculum.
  • Recruit as much support as possible from parents and local community groups, such as the scouts.

Chris Hupp is third grade teacher at ACS Cobham International School in Surrey.

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